Guest Column

The Invisible Roadblock of Attendance Laws

by Meria Joel Carstarphen

Twenty-six states still allow children to drop out of school at the age of 16 — including Minnesota, where I’ve worked as a superintendent for the last three years.

Eight additional states allow early exits at age 17. If as a society we truly uphold the value that every child deserves a quality education, why do we allow them to walk out our doors at 16 years old to join the ranks of the invisible class?

Everyone agrees that merely raising the compulsory attendance age is not a silver bullet to boosting lagging graduation rates. No single approach ever is. But raising low compulsory attendance ages is about closing a loophole that makes it easier for students to drop out. Low compulsory-attendance age presents families and schools with a roadblock to graduation since it allows the child, the parents and even the educators to grow complacent. When faced with a difficult student, all can just throw up their hands and give in to a law enabling a 16-year-old to make a life-altering decision to drop out of school.

Beyond the inherent social contradictions such a law presents when juxtaposed against the legal voting age (18) and legal drinking age (21), it is clear that the effects of dropouts reach far beyond the walls of a family’s home — they rattle the beams of our educated society.

The Long View
According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, approximately 1.2 million children drop out of school every year. If the dropouts from the class of 2008 had graduated, they would have contributed $319 billion in income over their lifetimes to the nation’s economy. In Minnesota alone, dropouts from the class of 2007 cost the state almost $3.9 billion in tax revenue over their lifetime.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that high school graduates earn 38 percent more than those without a high school diploma, while college graduates earn almost one and half times (140 percent) more.

This inequity exacerbates rampant social problems: Individuals without a high school diploma more often lack health insurance and have poorer health outcomes, which strains the health care system; they’re more likely to commit crimes and become imprisoned (the alliance notes that 75 percent of state prison inmates nationwide are dropouts); and are more likely to depend on social service programs.

Look in the Mirror
In many states, the roadblock to increasing the age to 18 comes down to two things, money and apathy. Of the two, the money is the easiest to challenge if we stop long enough to look past immediate costs to the long-range savings for local and national economies. While states will indeed have to find the revenue to pay for increased student enrollment and adequate support programs, what critics need to understand is that these upfront costs are investments that pay for themselves many times over.

More difficult is the needed shift in attitudes among our own ranks. Some educators simply believe that unless a child is willing to learn, keeping that child in school is counterproductive and will only disrupt the learning of more motivated students. Yet what they forget is that it’s not the students who have failed to graduate, it is the adults in their lives who have failed to graduate them.

We need to change our defeatist attitudes and embrace a belief that all students have unlimited possibilities for greatness and that everyone has a role in helping them achieve their potential. Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a survey of high school dropouts in 2005 that generated the following top five reasons for leaving school: (1) found classes were not interesting; (2) missed too many days and could not catch up; (3) spent time with people who were not interested in school; (4) “had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life”; and (5) was failing in school.

The good news? None of those reasons is immutable or the sole onus of students.

Local Efforts
In some states, the momentum is building among lawmakers to raise the compulsory attendance age to 18 as they start to see the connection between their state’s prosperity and a well-educated populace, but it takes leadership from the education community to get this issue on their radar. Including the issue as part of your school district’s legislative agenda is one way to start the conversation.

While the battle to change state law proceeds, educators must institute strategies to counteract the dropout rate — such as changing our teaching model from one that is didactic to an approach that engages students.

We must boost efforts to make the path to postsecondary options more tangible and attainable. Business partnerships can provide mentorship and internship opportunities to help students make the connection among school, the real world and their future. At the same time, we must remove systemic barriers to college access. Our school district provides free preparation exams for college admission, and we modified our high school schedules so students have more opportunities to take the tests in their home school during the school day (our juniors’ PSAT participation increased from 24 percent to 82 percent in one year through this effort).

For those students who already have started the cycle of truancy, an intervention program can do much to help students and their families get connected to services that can address the underlying problems that lead to their dropping out of school.

Tangible Way
When those of us now in leadership roles were in college imagining our role in shaping the lives of young people, who among us did not believe in the power of education to pave the way to equal opportunity? Once in the trenches, some may have grown disillusioned, but an inadequate compulsory attendance law simply presents us with a tangible way to dismantle an invisible roadblock to access and opportunity for our students.

Meria Joel Carstarphen, superintendent in St. Paul, Minn., will become superintendent in Austin, Texas, this summer. E-mail: (before July 1) or