Opinion: Compulsary attendanceOn July 1, 2009, South Dakota Codified Law 13-27-1 went into effect, mandating compulsory attendance for students up to age 18. The old law had required attendance until age 16 but, in the age of No Child Left Behind which sets goals for schools to graduate at least 80 percent of its students, allowing young people to legally drop out before they graduate — which typically occurs at age 18 — seemed counter-productive and even anachronistic.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
On July 1, 2009, South Dakota Codified Law 13-27-1 went into effect, mandating compulsory attendance for students up to age 18. The old law had required attendance until age 16 but, in the age of No Child Left Behind which sets goals for schools to graduate at least 80 percent of its students, allowing young people to legally drop out before they graduate — which typically occurs at age 18 — seemed counter-productive and even anachronistic.
So now that students and schools have lived under the new requirements for a full year, what sort of impact has the new law had? In 2009, the graduation rate in South Dakota was 89.21 percent. In 2010, with one year of the full weight of the law in effect, the graduation rate was 89.23 percent. Yes, that’s an increase not of 2 percent or two-tenths of a percent, but two hundredths of one percent. In other words, the net effect of the law was nil, or so minuscule as to be well within the range of chance.
To be fair, it may be too early to really see the effects of the law change. At least two schools of thought hold on this point. One says that it will take a while for the affected students to be accurately counted and for schools to start making the kinds of adjustments required to boost graduation rates. The second says that the first year should see the largest changes and no change in year one means the whole idea of mandating that a 17-year-old go to school when he flat-out refused to do so was a bust from the beginning.
The first view, which I tend to believe is overly optimistic (though this is one of those cases where I desperately hope I am wrong), might have some validity in terms of how such students are counted. For example, is it possible that students who were even considering dropping out quickly went and got the job done before the law change so that they wouldn’t have to abide by it? (The rules don’t apply to students who dropped out before July 1, 2009.) If so, and if those students are counted in their actual graduating class rather than the year they actually dropped, this could be skewing the data. It might also be that schools are still making the adjustment to the new law and so will start new programs to boost graduation rates in the next few years.
Nevertheless, I think the second view is the more accurate one, that just mandating school attendance until age 18 is a saw without a blade. It reminds me of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, which instructed the federal government to strive toward full employment of the American work force. A quick review of the unemployment rates in America since 1978 reveal not one single year in which it has fallen to 0 percent. Nor will it ever because even in the best years, some structural unemployment always exists. The act hasn’t had any material effect, it seems, on actually reaching full employment but at least the people who voted for it felt better for the attempt.
OK, that’s probably too cynical. I’m not suggesting that the legislators who passed the law to move compulsory attendance to 18 did so only to make themselves feel better. In fact, many educators supported the change, arguing that it gave them one more tool, one more argument, in the fight to keep kids in school. Some legislators no doubt believed it would light a fire under some schools to offer the programming necessary to deal with potential dropouts.
There are at least a couple of problems with this. First, the law in many areas is not being enforced. It’s not that judges and law enforcement personnel are not concerned about the problem. They are. But some are also so mired in more important issues, matters of basic criminal behavior, that they have neither the time nor the resources to deal with hauling a recalcitrant 17-year-old to school when he refuses to go. Second, most schools were already working hard to lower their dropout rate out of professional commitment and NCLB goals. The Mitchell School District has had its Second Chance School in place for 17 years now, with enormously positive results to show for it. Within the last several years, Mitchell High School added a freshman and sophomore academy, designed to identify students with characteristics frequently related to dropping out and work with them as early as possible, even the summer before their freshman year. The outcome of these programs, as well as the regular curriculum at MHS, was a graduation rate in 2010 of 96.13 percent. Thus, adding a law to the books won’t light any fires under schools to deal with the problem because the seat of their pants is already blazing.
Well, if it’s not helping any, does it really matter? After all, it can’t hurt. Or can it? One of the foibles of human nature is that we do tend to do things better when we choose to do them. When we are forced, we resist, we shut down, we react in all sorts of socially unacceptable ways. Is it that big a stretch to see that putting a highly resistant 17-year-old in a classroom when he does not want to be there can be counterproductive for other students in that same classroom?
Incidentally, it is also important to remember that though we have a ways to go in this area, we’ve also come a very long way. It wasn’t until the 1920s in America that high school enrollments even reached half of the high school-aged population. Most students took their eighthgrade diploma, if they had even made it that far, and went off to work. Between 1900 and 1920, high school enrollments in the United States increased eightfold.
Thus, part of our current problem is our own success. We’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit and those that are left are simply going to be tougher to reach. In many cases, a lot tougher.