There are Worse Things than Dropping Out of School

446665_41782525Craig Althof over at In Pursuit of Excellence emailed me the other day with an article from CNN about “dropout prevention programs” in the United States, including the America’s Promise Alliance’s program, which is chaired by Gen. Colin Powell.

The introduction to the article focuses on dropout prevention “foot soldiers” (a coordinator and a police officer) who knock on truants’ doors and insist that they show up to school.

Craig posted about this initiative (see link above) and I left him the following comment:

I have great respect for Gen. Powell’s effort and the mission America’s Promise is trying to accomplish. However, as a teacher and otherwise, I’ve seen the effect of trying to coerce students to stay in school when school is making them miserable.

I feel it would be more effective to diversify the school system and provide more options for students who have trouble within our traditional school structure. Our one-size-fits-all classrooms are usually only suitable for students who would do fine no matter what environment they were learning in. A variety of alternative public schools with different methodologies and programs, especially in low-income or troubled areas, might go some way toward solving this problem.

I also think there needs to be a shift in social attitudes supported by a change in the system, so that it is easier and more acceptable for students to leave school if they are unhappy and not learning, spend some time in the work force, and return to school whenever they are ready.

If disadvantaged students had a wider array of options when it came to their educational trajectory, I think many more of them would complete school.

My response to this subject is a personal one, and is not supported by any research or expertise in education policy. It stems in large part from intimate experience. My younger brother wanted very much to leave high school – he was desperately unhappy and not achieving. My parents, understandably, refused to allow it.

Would he have been better off if they had? It’s impossible to know, but it’s hard to imagine that things could have been much worse for him. He was depressed and reactive throughout his adolescence, his grades never improved no matter what efforts were made, and he managed to get into a lot of trouble, with both school authorities and the police. He eventually left school without my parents’ blessing, and spent many years floundering – his girlfriend got pregnant, he took a lot of drugs, and he hopped from one dead-end job to another, occasionally bilking our parents of large sums of money until they cut him off entirely.

What could he have done if he had left school earlier? When I think back to his teenage self, I like to imagine him up to his elbows in grease, apprenticing with an auto mechanic. If the world were different, maybe he could have begun training as an electrician right away – he eventually did just that, after completing his GED. He now seems to be living happily, with a wonderful family, and works contract jobs that, if not entirely stable, pay the bills and afford him satisfaction.

I am suspicious of “stay in school” dogma. I know it is well-intentioned, and I’ve no doubt that some young people benefit. But I wish more attention were paid to avenues other than traditional “school” that could be opened up to young people; I think a lot of suffering could be avoided if teenagers were supported in less conventional choices.

I have no doubt that others have strong opinions about this. I’d love to hear them.