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Laura McNeal Headshot

Obama's Call to Action: Political Theatrics or Authentic School Reform?

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A student drops out of high school every nine seconds, according to a recent study conducted by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. In his recent State of the Union address President Obama proposed a relatively simple solution: require every state to keep all students in school until they graduate or turn 18. "When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better," he stated. Is this merely political theatrics -- a sound bite solution to a complex problem that has multiple causes -- or is there authentic value in extending the mandatory school attendance age?

Currently, the maximum age range in which children are required to attend school varies from state to state. Twenty-one states require children to attend school until the age of 18; eight states require attendance until age 17; twenty-one states require attendance until age 16. If Obama's proposal became law, 35 states would have to change their existing compulsory attendance laws to mandate that students stay in school for an additional one to two years.

Those opposed to this idea raise a host of solid, if disheartening, arguments. They contend that forcing disinterested or hostile students to stay in school will disrupt the learning environment, and create further disciplinary challenges for already overburdened teachers, particularly those working in high poverty, overcrowded schools. They charge that the additional financial costs associated with educating a larger student populous would prove devastating to struggling school districts.

But, in order to understand the stakes involved in maintaining the status quo, we need to invert the question. What does it cost society if students don't graduate from high school? The answer can be found in three words: "Our collective future." The decision to drop out has consequences that extend far beyond the individual or family. It threatens our nation's future prosperity and our ability to compete in increasingly global and specialized economic markets. A recent study conducted by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University revealed that each dropout costs society $1,510 annually, as compared with high school graduates who contribute $5,000 in taxes each year. Another study found that a cohort of dropouts from one year alone cost the country $329 billion in income during their lifetimes. High school graduates are more likely to be married, to hold down jobs, to stay healthy and to obey the law than dropouts. [pdf] According to a recent NPR article 75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates did not complete high school. A team of economists at Columbia, Princeton and City University at New York calculated that the net economic benefit to the public of each high school graduate is $127,000.

Obviously, the 16-year-old who, for any number of personal, family, economic or academic reasons, opts to drop out is hardly contemplating the aggregate effect of his decision on the nation's Gross National Product. But we know enough about the "teenage brain" now to recognize that 16 year olds are not mature enough to make as far-reaching a decision as to whether to stay in school on their own. All adults who have a stake in our society have a responsibility to not only ensure that students who want to learn have the opportunity to do so, but also to reach, teach and "hold onto" those students who struggle, are bored, overwhelmed, or have too many other responsibilities. We need to provide resources, support and incentives to the teachers, school administrators, guidance counselors, mental health workers, coaches and others who are on the front line of helping at-risk students unlock their potential. And, as almost any parent can testify, two years can be a lifetime in terms of maturity and growth for teenagers.

Is Obama's proposal a one-stop solution to the drop out crisis? Of course not. This crisis had been simmering under the radar for years before policy makers noticed, and will require an influx of resources, knowledge and unified commitments from many stakeholders to turn around. The process of dropping out starts years before the act becomes official, and is the result of a complex interplay between individuals, families, schools, communities, and larger institutional and political structures. But his proposal does send an important message to youths and their families. "You are no longer invisible. We see you, we invest in you and we expect you to contribute in a positive way to yourself and to your future." That's not a bad place to begin.