Meet Students Where They Are…And When They’re Ready

by Robert Pondiscio
January 25th, 2012

President Obama used his State of the Union address last night to propose requiring students to stay in high school until they either graduate or turn 18.  “We know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” he said.

Perhaps so, but let’s be honest:  what’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And where’s the win in forcing kids to stay in “dropout factory” schools against their will and where they get seat time and nothing of use or relevance?

Listening to the President, I was reminded of an idea floated by Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH Charter school a few years back.  In an email to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, Goldstein suggested that if kids are bound and determined to drop out, we should let them leave—and set aside the money saved as a kind of education IRA.  The funds would be waiting for the dropouts if or when they woke up to the benefit of further education or training.  In Goldstein’s view, a little taste of the dead-end life of a dropout would be a more powerful inducement to get an education than the exhortations of any teacher.

Here’s what Mike wrote in 2008:

“At first, for a Jonathan Lewis, nobody bugs you to get up in the morning. . . . You like it, freedom. After a few months, you realize you’re a loser, other people are going places but not you. You maybe get a job and it’s a boring security job at $8/hour. And, maybe by age 20, or 26, or whatever, some maturity. THEN a Jonathan Lewis can start over. He can use the set-aside money from the years of high school he missed for GED tutoring or perhaps special charter high schools set up for older students, then college or other higher ed. But he controls the money; he’s essentially buying the service. Other options could spring up. Maybe even [in] the junior/senior year, $30,000 could be given to the military, which could set up programs where a high school dropout could attend a military-run boot camp, get a degree, then enlist”

Goldstein correctly observed at the time that at present lots of kids merely go through the motions “but resist every effort to learn.”  Even if “Jonathan” manages to graduate, “he’s still a kid with very low academic skills. The win is not much of a win,” he wrote. “The option should be ‘Graduate from a high school which features only rigorous classes’ or ‘Bank the money we want to invest in your education and do your own thing for a while,’” Goldstein concluded.

I emailed Mike this morning to ask if hindsight and the President’s desire to raise the bar on compulsory education has altered his thinking at all. Nope. “I still like my idea more than President Obama’s,” he replied.  “I think it’s win-win-win for kids, teachers, and society.”  Finland only requires kids to stick around until 16 (“I thought everyone wants to copy Finland!” he writes).  More to the point, Goldstein cites a Rennie Center study that uncovered “little research to support the effectiveness of compulsory attendance laws” in decreasing the number of dropouts or increasing the graduation rate.

Most critically, Goldstein’s idea does not write off dropouts. Rather it “holds constant the amount of education that someone receives.”  Is it sometimes appropriate to delay spending on a resistant student at age 17 or 18, and instead spend on that same person a few years down the road?  Goldstein believes it is.

“Interesting that President Obama also called for government supported job training.  My proposal essentially self-funds a certain amount of job training for the least employable people.  It simply shifts a 17 year old from sitting in a required 11th grade history class in Raleigh where he is totally ignoring the teacher and possibly distracting other kids, to that same human being as a 22-year-old who might be sitting in a chosen community college class getting training on a technical job with Siemens with the same public dollars.”

Veteran teachers know that there is a subset of teenagers who simply do not want to be there, regardless of how hard their teachers work or how engaging their lessons might be.  Raising the compulsory age, like so many ideas in education, effectively translates to “work harder” and “engage more kids.”  By contrast, Goldstein’s idea makes good, intuitive sense.

A standard classroom homily is “Meet the students where they are.” To that we might add: “And when they are ready.”


  1. Robert, I enjoyed this post, very pragmatic. I can only see disruption with forcing some to attend school that do not want or value being there at the “current time”. Banking this funding instead of wasting it should be part of the new normal. I like Goldstein’s thinking and enjoyed his last Education Next article, Studying Teachers Moves.

    Comment by Brad Miller — January 25, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

  2. I’d also consider it mandatory for students to earn their competency determination for high school graduation before they can get a driver’s license. While I realize some urban youngsters won’t have access to a car when they become old enough to get a license and won’t care about this law, many will. No (EARNED) high school diploma – no driver’s license. This is a carrot I could embrace.

    I’m aware many states allow kids to get their license at sixteen or seventeen, but this policy could/should become the new normal. If you cannot be responsible in school, why should we grant you the privilege of a driver’s license. A driver’s license is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. It’s a privilege that should be attached to demonstrated responsibility. Why should we set you free on the road navigating a four to five thousand pound motor vehicle when you have failed to prove you’re responsible in the classroom? WE SHOULDN’T.

    I realize this is a state sovereignty issue. Each state sets its own laws regarding the acquisition of a driver’s license. So, let the irresponsible states ignore this proposal and see what that does for their teen driving records as well as their high school graduation rates.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 25, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

  3. Split the difference. If allowed to drop out and (in theory) come back later for some schooling, too many will drift away for good. Partly because some students just don’t like classrooms. But, if we turned the last year or two of HS into technical or vocational training, with minimal (but high quality) academics, they’d graduate with something more meaningful that the sorry credit-recovery diplomas that so many kids are getting today.

    Comment by balsam — January 25, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

  4. As I mentioned on Twitter, we seem to have an answer to the question, “what’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion”. The answer appears to be “substantial”:

    Of course, it’s not literally inconceivable that a proposal like Goldstein’s wouldn’t have a better outcome. It does, however, seem awfully unlikely.

    Comment by Paul Bruno — January 25, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

  5. Thank you for the article and the comments!! Agree with all…

    Comment by tim-10-ber — January 26, 2012 @ 7:42 am

  6. Here’s a piece in which Russ Whitehurst and Elena Silva, two people whose views I take seriously, say raising the age won’t have much of an impact:

    I’m not sure the research, for or against, sheds much light on the efficacy of Mike’s idea since it represents not a variable in the existing paradigm, but an entirely new one. The only way to test it would be to try it and measure the long-term outcomes against a control state or district. I’d also be curious to identify and track the outcomes of kids who were inclined to drop out at 16 but did not. By the same token, you’d also need to identify kids who have dropped out, and who are now in their early 20s, and ask if they 1) regretted dropping out and 2) would go back to get some kind of education or training if they had $30,000 at their disposal to cover the cost.

    The biggest downside I see to Mike’s idea is that it would encourage fly-by-night schools and trainers that would spring up to try to soak up these dollars while doing little for the people who decide to take advantage of it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 26, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  7. Seems to me that programs like the Department of Labor’s Job Corps centers are a start on this idea. What if there were more options and we took the time to guide students to the opportunities?

    Comment by michael clark — January 29, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  8. This is a very interesting article, I definitely see both sides… but lean towards encouraging students to stay in school, over supporting dropping out. Even for a child who thinks that’s what they want to do… that’s a lifelong decision w/ possible dire consequences for a teenager to make on their own, at such a young immature stage in their life. Especially when many students can still get in colleges through various chance programs, even though they graduate with lower academic stats. I would rather see programs that invest more in getting students better aligned for college, career, or both, and helping them to develop their own talents and abilities… rather than supporting dropout. There’s quite a bit of research that shows where students said they wouldn’t had dropped out if they had more encouragement and motivation. Where would you draw the line on encouraging to stay vs. supporting dropping out? I think this would lead to other issues..

    Comment by Vea Glenn — January 30, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

  9. The Washington Post did an update on Jonathan Lewis. He eventually did graduate. He dropped out of community college, can’t hold down a job, is living at home and convinced that he is going to make it big as a rapper someday. He spends most of his time sleeping and hanging out with friends.

    Sorry to say this, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do to help the Jonathan Lewises of this world.

    Comment by alamo — January 31, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  10. “There’s quite a bit of research that shows where students said they wouldn’t had dropped out if they had more encouragement and motivation.”

    But isn’t this what you would expect a person who dropped out to say? Would you expect them to say “I partied too much and didn’t want to work”?

    Comment by alamo — January 31, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  11. [...] life than they would have been if they’d been allowed to drop out at 16 or 17?  At the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio: “What’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And [...]

    Pingback by Dropout age: what should it be, how much does it matter, and is there a better way? « Central States Education Group — February 17, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

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