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Raising school dropout age is not shown to help

Updated: March 7, 2012 8:04AM

In a perfect world, raising the dropout age to 18 in Chicago and elsewhere would miraculously make kids planning a run for the schoolhouse exit stay and go on to graduate.

Unfortunately, though keeping students in school as long as possible sounds like a good idea — so much so that President Obama suggested it in his State of the Union address and Gov. Pat Quinn jumped on the bandwagon by including it in his own “state of the state” address — there is little evidence to suggest it’s a successful strategy for blunting dropout rates.

In a 2009 study titled “Raise the Age, Lower the Dropout Rate? Considerations for Policymakers” by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, researchers looked at whether Massachusetts succeeded in lowering dropout rates by raising the compulsory school attendance age to 18.

It did not.

After analyzing other states’ policies and the various academic pro-con arguments for raising the compulsory age of school attendance to 18, the Rennie Center concluded, “There is no credible empirical evidence to support this policy alone as an effective strategy to combat the dropout crisis.”

The study also said that believing age increases will work today simply because they did in the past fails to recognize that the world has changed.

“The research suggests that these laws had an impact on high school students in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when the circumstance behind the decision to drop out were likely quite different than they are today,” the report says. “In addition, the findings themselves suggest that the impact of the laws requiring students to stay in school until they are 18 has decreased over time.”

It is a fact that today an undergraduate degree is the bare minimum requirement to get a foot in the door to interview for a decent-paying job. In today’s market it seems almost unimaginable that anyone would be able to subsist, much less thrive, without a high school diploma.

But just as there limits to the impact of a longer school day or the latest educational technologies, a high minimum age to stay in school isn’t a silver bullet.

There are many reasons students drop out of high school. “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” a 2006 report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, listed the top five. No. 1 was “classes were not interesting,” followed by “missed too many days and could not catch up,” “spent time with people not interested in school,” “had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life” and “was failing in school.”

Students like this are not only at high risk for a lifetime of underachievement, but also put other students who are trapped in classrooms with them in the difficult position of battling for teachers’ and school administrators’ very limited time and attention. Not exactly a winning formula for graduating students instead of just housing them until age 18.

The amount of outreach and intervention that would be required to address the myriad factors that contribute to those desperate students’ issues — never mind the cost — boggles the mind. Education and child-development experts don’t agree on how to change the circumstances in a young person’s life that lead to such poor outcomes.

But addressed they should be — a movement to do so will be the only thing that improves Illinois’ current 26 percent high school dropout rate.

To think that an extra year of school will do that heavy lifting, as House Minority Leader Tom Cross said in reference to another Quinn proposal, is “a game of fantasy government.”

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