The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Education - Why Compulsory" by The Ann Arbor News, 9/30/2001.

Original Title:
An Alternative to Compulsory Education
by Barry McGhan

In June the Ann Arbor News criticized state Senator Alma Wheeler Smith's bill to extend the school dropout age to 18 as only treating a symptom of the problem. In July Senator Smith responded that society lets children down, and itself off too easily, by not expecting them to complete high school.

These are both principled positions. But there's another choice -- eliminate compulsory education altogether!

"What a cockeyed idea," you say. Please, hear me out.

I formed this view during the eight years I taught in an alternative high school for dropouts from the Flint school system. Senator Smith is right on track when she says schools push some students out at 16 and this burden falls mostly on poor and minority students. Those were my students.

Every year we helped two out of three – all failures in the eyes of the regular schools – be successful. But why not three of three?

Schools are like obstacle courses, set up so most students can get through. Teachers have some control over the size and placement of the obstacles but not as much as they need to get everyone through. Our individualized program enabled us to do more coaching, and modify approaches to obstacles so kids could get past. But we still couldn't save everyone.

Most of our students had been failing for a long time. Others had heart-wrenching stories of abuse and neglect. In spite of our best efforts, we lost some. Theoretically, all children can learn. Practically, even extraordinary measures carry no guarantee of success.

Also, the seeds for dropping out at 16 are sown early and often in a child's life and bear bitter fruit for many years. Some students have mentally checked out as early as ten or twelve. They are chronically absent or truant. They bounce from school to school never quite catching up. They're occasionally disruptive, and as they get older, they get tougher. It doesn't matter how late the official school-leaving age is set, without a new approach they're educational toast.

Flint's alternative school taught me two important lessons. First, I learned even troubled students know they need a high school diploma. Our school was voluntary, but we always had a sizeable waiting list – dropouts and kickouts from other schools and districts – clamoring to get in. If the importance of graduating is clear to these students, it's clear to everyone.

Years ago, when compulsory education was new, families of that simpler time had to be forced to use the state's schools. Now, the complicated nature of modern life makes the need for an education clear, and compulsory attendance irrelevant -- an anachronism.

The second lesson? Teaching in a voluntary school gives the staff critically needed control over their work. We called it the "my way or the highway" approach to education.

Sounds harsh, and opposite to the school's mission of rescuing dropouts doesn't it?

Adults' ability to demand cooperative behavior from children diminishes as puberty approaches. Compelling school attendance and expecting cooperative behavior become less effective. Mostly, students escape their repeated failures through chronic absenteeism, or sitting passively in the back of the room, their thoughts elsewhere. Some choose confrontation. It's reasonable to ask uncooperative people to go so you can work with the rest.

All voluntary schools (private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, etc.) do this. But our mission was to get dropouts to graduate. So we set up a system most voluntary schools don't use. If students floundered, we would call them in for a conversation like this:

"Terry, we've noticed things aren't working out for you. You haven't kept up the contract we both signed when you came in. We're going to drop you and let someone from the waiting list have your slot. If you want to continue your education you have several options." [We would then give the student four or five suggestions.]

"Go home and think about what you want. Talk to your family. If nothing else works out over the next two months, come back and we'll see if we can bring you back here. We'll save all the work you've done so far. You can pick up where you left off."

Some kids cycled in and out of our school several times before they finally graduated. Our approach put the responsibility for cooperation squarely on the student's shoulders. It also decriminalized and defused the dropping process and made separation from school a temporary and correctable problem. It offered redemption.

However, it's not an approach that will work for most schools under the current system.

Our school was small and intimate, with a lot of flexibility to develop an individualized system. Plus, our mission was to salvage these troubled students.

Regular schools have all they can handle getting most students through the obstacle course. They are too big, too inflexible, too much at the mercy of community circumstances (poverty, unemployment, violence, drugs, etc.). At-risk students can't or won't cooperate, and coercive measures are ineffective in requiring cooperation. So, this underclass of children is eventually driven out. No one likes it, but no alternative seems possible within the current system. If compulsory attendance was repealed for regular schools – with no other changes – they would put even more students on the street with no good alternative.

One problem is that regular schools generally pay no penalty for dropping students. Over the course of a year, a regular high school of 1600 students might drop as many as 200 kids, but no teachers are laid off during the year. No courses are eliminated. If schools became voluntary, they would be required to reduce the size of their offerings and staff as soon as they lost enough students to account for one teacher's salary. That way, a school would not drop students casually, but would be able to drop some to enable it to be effective with the rest.

Compulsory attendance regulations can be safely eliminated only if other changes are also made. For example, watchdog organizations would be needed at each school to review the dropping process and ensure fairness. If a school had an opening it would be required to enroll any age-appropriate student. Denying enrollment could only come after a student demonstrated inappropriate behavior. Schools would need to reshape their programs to make them attractive to new clients if current ones are eliminated.

A voluntary school would be more focused on giving students a good education and less concerned about custodial matters now required by compulsory education laws. Custody would be the parents' responsibility. If parents can't meet their responsibilities, then some social agency would have to step in and take on the problem, rather than foisting it off on schools.

The widely understood importance of a good education will keep parents and children shopping around for a school that works for them. New schools will be created to meet these demands because teachers and administrators want employment. A modern, voluntary, user-friendly public school system will be a big improvement over what we have.

Or, call me a cockeyed optimist and keep what you've got.

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