On March 4, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 71-31 to approve passage of House Bill 4030, which will require students to attend high school until the age of 18. The bill has gone on to the State Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
Sponsored by State Rep. Doug Geiss (D-Taylor), the bill is the first change in Michigans allowable dropout age in 113 years. In 1896, the legislature ruled that students could leave school at the age of 16, primarily to help work on family farms.
Rep. Geiss makes some good points in promoting his bill. He notes that 70 percent of prisoners in Michigan are high school dropouts. He points out that requiring students to spend an extra two years in high school will better prepare them to find jobs, instead of being a drag on society.
Then too, 28 other states have raised the dropout age for students, and the bill has the support of Governor Granholm, who hopes to double the number of college students in Michigan.
We also have what amounts to a dropout crisis in our state, according to the Michigan Education Association (MEA).
Doug Pratt, communications director for the MEA, noted in an interview on Lansing radio station WILS that an estimated 20,000 Michigan students drop out of high school each year. On the average, they cost state residents $127,000 per year in lost tax revenues, public health care, unemployment, law enforcement, incarceration and other costs. Thats $2.5 billion we could be recapturing if we could keep students in high school.
Sounds pretty good, doesnt it? The hope is that by raising the dropout age to 18, millions of bored, unmotivated students will be energized by two more years of school, turning their lives around to become productive members of society.
At least, thats how its supposed to work, but you have to wonder if Michigan teachers are doing handsprings over the idea.
For starters, if a teenager wants to learn something, like playing the guitar or how to create a website, nothing can stop him or her. Weve all known teens willing to spend every waking moment learning what they love.
But for kids who dont want to learn, thats another story.
One can only imagine the difficulty in keeping restless teenagers motivated to study subjects such as algebra, history, chemistry and English literature. Our teachers perform a heroic service every day of the week, trying to keep kids on track to graduation.
Will that gargantuan effort be made any easier by requiring unhappy, uncaring, potentially disruptive students to remain in school?
Parents of younger female students might also question the wisdom of requiring older neer-do-well male students to remain in school. Many studies point out the hazards of 18 and 19-year-old men hooking up with impressionable 15- and 16-year-old girls.
Do you want your honor student daughter swayed by a nihilistic young Romeo whos going nowhere with his life, but has been stuck in high school for an extra two years? He may not have any interest in studying, but plenty of interest in leading your naive, easily-swayed child down the wrong track.
These days, youd have to be a fool to drop out of high school, since even unskilled jobs are disappearing. Unfortunately, many teens have difficulty seeing the big picture of what their lives will be like 10, 20, 30 years on. Many teens suffer from poor judgement, low self-esteem, depression, and a general feeling of hopelessness about their future. Some are simply not inclined towards academics, but may be a whiz at working in an auto shop.
Ultimately, perhaps wed be better off with cultural solutions to the dropout crisis, rather than a government fix. In a recent speech to Congress, President Obama made a ringing statement directed at students, noting that when you drop out of high school, youre letting your country down as well as yourself.
Perhaps thats the kind of talk we need to hear more of, not just in our schools, but on TV and in our homes. Kids need inspiration, perhaps in the form of more counseling in our schools. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce suggests hiring dropout coaches for students who are at risk of dropping out; or allowing community colleges to accept students who feel the need for a challenge greater than high school can provide.
Solutions... such as raising the dropout age are punitive. That doesnt get to the cause of why they drop out in the first place, the MEAs Doug Pratt said in the interview quoted earlier.
We also need to remember that our cash-strapped state already has a cultural cure for the dropout crisis. Its the reality check of working for minimum wage for a few years until it sinks in that its time to reboot your life.
Thats why we have the G.E.D. -- to give young people a second chance. In 2006, 9,839 students took the General Educational Development course in Michigan to complete their high school equivalency.
That leaves about 10,000 dropouts per year who didn‘t complete either high school or the G.E.D. That‘s a shame, but we can‘t expect government to solve every social ill, especially when scarce money for education might be better spent on those who really want to learn.