Rona Wilensky was founding principal of New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado and served for 17 years before retiring in 2009. She is now a Resident Fellow at the Spencer Foundation.
The recent report on dropout prevention and recovery from the National Governor’s Association’s Center for Best Practices has as one of its recommendations raising the maximum compulsory age of schooling to 18 and creating penalties – loss of driver’s licenses or work permits – if students leave earlier.
The goal is to create a public policy statement that staying in school matters. The result would be a burdensome layer of record keeping and enforcement whose fruition would be an adversarial relationship between high schools and teenagers.
Of course it is desirable for students to stay in school for as long as possible and it is better yet if they master the curriculum and graduate. But given the reasons which the report itself identifies for school leaving – academic failure, disinterest in school, problematic behavior (getting suspended or expelled) and life events – mandating school retention is unlikely to make a real difference in learning even as it creates big problems for high school staff.
If we actually address the causes of dropping out it will be the rare student who leaves school before completion. So let’s put our energy into something positive instead of picking fights with young people who are practically adults.
What makes much more sense is the report’s recommendation to find ways for out of school youth, and particularly those most at risk, to easily return to schooling when they have figured out that going back is what they want to do. School people would much rather spend their time helping a struggling student who wants to learn than facing off with a truculent 17 year old who has been made to do what he or she doesn’t want to do.
When was the last time any of you tried to “make” a 17 year old do something? The fact is that they can and will just leave unless we are prepared to use substantive legal or physical force, a wasteful use of resources. And what happens if the school “wins” and forces kids to be where they don’t want to be? My experience is that angry youth have the capacity to make the lives of their peers, teachers and administrators utterly miserable. They will disrupt class, verbally abuse their teachers, harass their peers in the hallways and dare all the adults to make them behave. Eventually they will force us to suspend them and maybe they will misbehave so badly that we will have to adjudicate them. Which would be a truly tragic ending to an otherwise colossal waste of time.
These are not the kinds of relationships we should want with teenagers. We shouldn’t be in the business of trying to make them do what they don’t want to do. We should be trying to get them to want to do the things that are good for them. And it can be done – by building caring, trustworthy relationships with them; by offering meaningful and interesting classes; by creating opportunities that build on their strengths and let them shine; and by helping them with the very real problems they have in their lives. We want to win them over, not knock them down. We want to stand next to them cheering them on, instead of drawing a line in the sand and trying to force them to give in. We need their boundless energy working with us, not against us.
What we need is a system of easy in and easy out. This was the conclusion of one of my teachers after yet another round of unsuccessful effort with a genuinely reluctant learner. School would be a very different place if we would let high school students go when, for whatever reason, they can’t or won’t do school and if we would genuinely welcome them back, at any time, with all the supports in the world when they are truly ready to try. We might find that we had dramatically more energy for helping them if we didn’t spend so much of our time trying to compel them to do what, at a given point in time, they do not want to do. Why we might even have enough energy to deal with academic deficits; to create compelling learning opportunities; to prevent problematic behavior and to help them with out of school problems.