Anti-Dropout plan comes cheap
by Michael O'Leary

(The Keene Sentinel, November 22, 2005)


Governor John Lynch's proposal to require students be 18 before they can quit school is well intended but grossly misguided. I'm sure all citizens of New Hampshire wish and hope that all of our students will stay in school and eventually graduate, but requiring students to stay inside a system that doesn't work for them and that they have in many cases fought and disrupted will not solve the problem of school drop outs.


It is a good-hearted effort by Gov. Lynch, but it underscores the lack of imagination and resources this state has to deal with this problem, or any problem really. Absent any money, time or expertise in the matter, any intelligent person would come to the same conclusion. It may not work, but at least it is doing something. To a chronically underfunded state government, any solution that does not require money passes for wisdom.


I have been through times when the goal was to reduce the school dropout rate to zero. Inevitably, those times led to lower educational standards. Absent any desire, effort or ability to succeed on the part of the student and absent adequate resources, teachers and time, the only thing to do is lower the bar.


My experience with students who quit school is that they have quit on school long before they actually leave. Generally school is too difficult, too meaningless or too stressful for them to stay. Those things don't start on their sixteenth birthdays. Most students who quit school were identified at risk in middle school and even earlier. It is only when they finally reach 16 and can get a license and possibly a job that students feel ready to leave school altogether. To postpone that until they are 18 is to invite more disruption, more expenditure of school resources and more frustration of all of those involved. More importantly, it is to increase the negative impact of disaffected students on the students who really want an education. It is to punish the innocent for the failings of others.


Truth be told, students who quit school are making a lot more honest statement than those who stay in school, do the least they can, and graduate with a diploma that means less and less every year. And there are many more students like that than those who quit.


Instead of sentencing students to two more years of high school, we should have a system in which students are motivated to achieve our educational goals. Society has a vested interest in students learning skills and dispositions that would enable them to be functioning and responsible citizens of the state and country. Yet we settle for proof that students can come to school and sit in classes for four years.


Instead of basing our standards on time, we should base them on student mastery of the skills and disposition we feel are needed for success in our society. When students can exhibit mastery of a basic level of these standards, then they should be able to get a diploma which certifies that. Other students who want to prepare for college or get advanced technological skills can continue in our schools and receive diplomas that reflect their advanced learning. 


The current Advanced Placement model would be a good starting point. Achievement levels in each discipline should be clearly stated with tests that require mastery of them to pass. Students would take classes based upon the level of achievement they need to master and the teacher would prepare them for a test that would be administered and evaluated by others, maybe at the state level. Students would see teachers as people who can help them attain the mastery they need, and no students would be forced to take a class on something they had already mastered.


Instead of proving they spent time in school, students would have to prove they learned the skills and knowledge that society values. Instead of receiving grades, students would have to prove mastery. Instead of being bored, students would be motivated to meet attainable goals.


In the 60's, William Glasser, an educational theorist, said that American education was like a prop airplane. It had a complicated motor with thousands of moving parts, a cranky history of inefficiency and a huge cadre of technicians to keep it running, Sitting next to it was a new plane with jet propulsion technology. It had an engine that is very stable, with few moving parts and a very efficient history. It was only a matter of time before the jets were in the air.


Well, it is forty years later, and the jets are still on the ground. The lack of state venture capital and imagination has kept the old prop planes in the air, and although there are thousands of mechanics tweaking the motors with tune-ups, overhauls and rebuilding, little actually changes.


And Lynch's proposal is just the latest inexpensive tweak.


Michael O'Leary teaches at Conval High school in Peterborough. His weblog is Adrift in New Hampshire (