President Obama's Plan to Raise the School Dropout Age Will Not Work

President Obama, in his State of the Union Address, called for every state to require students to stay in school until they turn 18.

I have mixed feelings about this proposal. I believe all students should stay in school until they graduate. I understand the reasons for the president's concern. If America is to be globally competitive, it must have a high performing, highly trained, highly-technologically prepared workforce. And today's demands for a highly skilled workforce require, at minimum, a high school diploma.

There is little data to indicate that raising the age of graduation will result in lower dropout rates. According to a report by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, Raise the Age, Lower the Dropout Rate? Considerations for Policymakers, "our review revealed that there is little research to support the effectiveness of compulsory attendance laws in achieving these goals [of lowering the dropout rate]." (p.12)

Education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States. It is states and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The Federal Government presently provides only 10.8 percent of educational financing.

Twenty-one states require students to attend high school until they graduate or turn 18. Some of those states include: Nebraska (87.8 percent graduation rate) and Wisconsin (86.7 percent graduation rate) which are high performing states. Other states that are high performing have a compulsory school age of 16 including: Maryland (76 percent graduation rate), Massachusetts (76 percent graduation rate), Iowa (86.6 percent graduation rate), Vermont (86.5 percent graduation rate), North Dakota (86.3 percent graduation rate). Some other states with an 18-year-old requirement have high dropout rates including New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. (Source: So it is not the age of mandatory attendance which determines the dropout rate but other factors. Simply mandating that young people remain in school without addressing the causes for their leaving will accomplish little.

Why children leave school prior to graduation:
The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, a report issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicated that one of the primary reasons that children leave school is because they are bored. How will holding a student where they do not want to be until age 18 lessen the boredom?
• Others leave because they feel that the curriculum has no relevance in the real world.
• Students dropout because of teenage pregnancy.
• Some students leave school because they are trying to meet their family's financial obligations.

Expecting states to add additional costs during this recession is foolhardy especially when so many have made cuts into the marrow of education. There will be added costs including adding more classrooms, providing additional teachers, providing additional support personnel such as counselors and paying for alternative on-line courses. Finally, add in the additional costs of enforcing the law.

The president, in his well-intentioned proposal, has provided a sound-bite, simplistic solution to this highly complex problem.