Should Michigan raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18? No

Michigan should figure out why students leave

Reducing the dropout rate is the rationale behind the proposal to increase the compulsory attendance age to 18, but does a higher compulsory attendance age result in higher graduation rates? Of the 10 states with the best graduation rates (based on 2001-2002 data from the National Center for Education Statistics), only two – Utah (4th) and Wisconsin (7th) – compel attendance to the age of 18. The rest allow students to leave at 16. Of the 10 states with the lowest graduation rates, one (New Mexico) mandates attendance to age 18. Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee are at 17 and the remaining states at 16.

Does it foster high achievement? Of the six countries scoring highest on the Program for International Student Assessment mathematics exam in 2003, only one – the Netherlands – requires school attendance to the age of 18. The others range from age 14 (Korea, Hong Kong, and Macao-China) to 16 (Canada, Finland, and Liechtenstein). Overseas, less is more.

The proponents of this legislation are claiming it will provide economic benefits. I’m dubious. It will certainly create jobs, just not the high-tech, high-skill jobs we are led to believe. Most of the new jobs would be "school" jobs. Keeping young adults in the system longer will increase student populations, requiring more teachers, administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, textbooks, hot lunches and standardized tests. In this case it’s not "higher education" that will result in more jobs, but "bigger education," a more ponderous system that would require additional funding at a time when the state can’t fulfill its current financial obligations.

Costliness and lack of efficacy aside, my objections to the state’s reliance on compulsory attendance are more fundamental and speak to the real challenge facing our educational system. "There are only two places where time takes precedence over the job to be done – school and prison," observed psychologist William Glasser. Government, at both the state and federal levels, has become increasingly heavy-handed in imposing its agenda on our children, demanding more and more of their childhood. Children are born indentured servants to the state, which now wants to extend their sentence in the name of the economy (also note that recently introduced legislation, Senate Bill 162, would make kindergarten attendance mandatory for 5-year-olds). As a parent, I’m angry.

As a teacher, I’m appalled. There are few things more rewarding than teaching students who want to learn and few things more frustrating and pointless than trying to teach students who have no interest in learning material essentially force-fed them. Their attitude is understandable when the meal consists of the watered-down stew of Michigan’s one-size-fits-none "grade-level-content-expectations." The old saw, "You can lead a horse to water…" has been revised for the new millennium. It’s now, "Drag the horse to water, and then push his head under because drowning looks like drinking from a distance."

Perhaps the attraction of raising the attendance age to 18 is that it relieves educrats of the thoughtful effort necessary to actually examine why students are dropping out of school and to craft equally thoughtful and creative solutions. Mandatory attendance is the legislative equivalent of the weak trump card parents play when trying to coerce obedience from children: "Because I said so!"

The proposal to extend compulsory attendance to age 18 is a sham, floated only because of an absence of any better ideas, much like the recently imposed "tougher" graduation requirements: Forcing all students to take Algebra 2 certainly sounds rigorous. It looks like you’re doing something substantive, but it’s a great sound and fury signifying nothing.

High achievement is not the result of more seat time. It is the product of students’ complete engagement in a discipline they find relevant and valuable, and there is no better way to extinguish the innate joy of learning than by relying on coercion. Plato understood that when he wrote, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." Einstein’s experiences at the autocratic Luitpold Gymnasium caused him to later remark, "It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry… It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."

A vote against Senate Bill 11 and/or House Bill 4042 is not a vote against education. It would be a demonstration of our faith in the value of the education we offer (while recognizing there is much room for improvement), faith in the ability of our teachers to present it engagingly (except when frantically cramming for high-stakes standardized tests), and faith in our young adults’ ability to make the right decision regarding their education.

Scott W. Baker, an elementary special education teacher in Shelby Public Schools, previously worked for 12 years as a high school resource teacher. He blogs at