Sunday, June 17, 2012

Obama proposal to raise dropout age falls flat

President Barack Obama's call for states to raise the minimum age at which students can drop out of high school seems about as popular as a homework assignment on Friday afternoon.

Since the president urged the change in his State of the Union speech in January, only one state has raised its dropout age to 18, and that won't take effect for five years.

Even legislators in Obama's home state of Illinois wouldn't go along with his proposal, despite an endorsement from the governor. They quickly dumped the issue into the limbo of a special study commission after it became clear there wasn't enough money to support it.

One of the biggest concerns is the cost. If states simply force unwilling students to spend an extra year or two in school, many teens could stay until they are 18 but still leave without a diploma because of poor grades. And extra counseling and remedial courses to help are expensive.

"Where are we going to get the money?" asked state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Chicago Democrat who heads the Illinois Senate's education committee.

Twenty-nine states let students leave school before they turn 18. Obama urged lawmakers to require them to stay in school until graduation or age 18.

"When students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma," the president said in the speech.

But since then, only Maryland has approved a plan to raise the dropout age, first to 17 in 2015 and then to 18 in 2017.

At least 13 states considered legislation this year to raise the age, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, although the bills weren't necessarily introduced in response to Obama.

Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky made raising the dropout age a major goal for the last few years but hasn't found enough support among state lawmakers. In Wyoming, there was a short-lived suggestion to raise the age and deny driver's licenses to students who drop out before 18.

Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois embraced Obama's proposal, immediately calling for legislation but without proposing additional funding or programs. The measure never made it out of committee, and lawmakers wound up approving a watered-down version that creates a commission to come up with recommendations on the issue by November.

The White House has not made the idea a public priority. Asked for details about the proposal nearly a week after the State of the Union, spokesman Jay Carney said he didn't have any. And the president himself has hardly mentioned it since.

Neither the White House nor the U.S. Department of Education would discuss the slow response to Obama's call for action or address objections raised by critics. White House spokeswoman Caroline Hughes issued a statement saying the president "continues to believe that when students stay in school, they are more likely to succeed in today's economy."

About three out of every 10 students leave high school without a diploma, according to a report from Education Week. Research shows high school dropouts are more likely to spend time in jail, endure unemployment and earn lower wages.

Legislators and education experts welcomed the emphasis on education and the dropout age but say it's not a simple fix.

"It can't just be 'tie them to their chairs until they are 18.' It has to be giving them a meaningful education," said Lily Eskelsen, an elementary teacher from Utah and the vice president of the National Education Association.

With many students facing disadvantages such as poverty, learning disabilities or weak English skills, the effort to keep them enrolled has to be wide-ranging.

"How do we catch them before they are falling behind? If you don't do all of it as a system, it won't work," Eskelsen said.

In Maryland, the state expects to spend $35 million more on education when the age rises to 17 and $54 million more when the age reaches 18 in 2017.

Proponents argued the state will save money in the long run by having a better-educated workforce that will pay more taxes.

Aisha Braveboy, a Democratic delegate who sponsored the measure, also noted that people without a high school diploma are eight times more likely to end up in the state's criminal justice system.

"From a financial perspective, it makes absolute sense to invest in education instead of incarceration," Braveboy said.

In Illinois, Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia sponsored the House legislation to raise the dropout age but now says it was the wrong move.

While calling the Democratic governor a good "team player" for backing the president's proposal, she said raising the age is not realistic considering the state's budget cuts. This week, lawmakers voted to cut $495 million from education, 3.9 percent of the state's funding for schools.

The governor still supports raising the dropout age, spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.

More than 18,000 Illinois high school students dropped out in the 2010-11 school year, out of a total of 636,000 students. Legislative staff said they could not reliably estimate the cost to the state if those students were kept in school until 18.

But one group has taken a stab at calculating the cost of allowing those students to drop out. The Chicago-based Alternative Schools Network estimates that each dropout costs Illinois a net lifetime average of about $70,000, while high school graduates contribute a net amount of about $236,000.

For some Illinois lawmakers, the idea of raising the dropout age isn't even worth sending to a commission for study. Sen. David Luechtefeld, a former teacher and high school coach, said he's never talked to a school administrator who thinks raising the age is a good idea.

"Most of the time," Luechtefeld said, "a kid who doesn't want to be in school is a problem for the kids who want to be there."


Litigation almost a given with education reform

Critics of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education legislation, passed by the Louisiana Legislature in April, already have filed lawsuits against it, citing violations of the state constitution and other matters.

"It's almost a given that education reforms will be challenged by someone when you have a statewide voucher piece," said Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge, information management and dissemination for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

The Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the education package, which among other things spends public school funds on tuition at private schools and alters the public school funding formula.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education John C. White, the architect of the legislation, is confident the state will prevail in court.

"It's for the courts to decide, but the constitution is clear that it gives the Legislature the authority to enact such systems," White said. "I just think it's sad that the lawsuit is about adult issues and not child issues. It's sad that people would want to get in the way of choosing what's right for their kids."

Adam Emerson, director of parental choice for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group based in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, said voucher programs like Louisiana's often undergo closer legal scrutiny than programs such as the one in Florida.

That one is funded by tax credits given to donors who contribute to scholarship funds issued by nonprofits. When the money for vouchers comes directly from state coffers, as it does in Louisiana, the legal battle can be more difficult to win.

"Any private option like this is going to start off with a lawsuit," Emerson said. "There is always going to be a challenge to this, and legislatures already know that. The U.S. Supreme Court has already given a few rulings in favor of tax-credit scholarships, but at the state level, not all voucher programs have fared very well."


British school inspectorate to tackle 'anti-school culture' in poor areas

Generations of white working-class boys are being consigned to the scrapheap because of an "anti-school culture" in deprived areas, according to the head of Ofsted.

Hundreds of thousands of poor children are growing up with little hope of a good education or career after being raised by families that fail to set proper boundaries or fully understand the difference between right and wrong, Sir Michael Wilshaw warned.

He said problems were particularly acute among disadvantaged white boys who perform worse than almost every other group at the age of 16.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Sir Michael said that old-fashioned values such as “self-help” and support for education had been eroded in many communities, particularly those in post-industrial cities with high levels of unemployment.

He said teachers from the best schools in these areas were now expected to act as “surrogate parents” – escorting pupils to bus stops, helping with homework, providing meals and giving them advice – in place of families “who can’t or won’t support their children”.

The comments were made as Ofsted prepared to launch a major inquiry on Friday intended to tackle the gulf between rich and poor pupils in the English education system.

Experts from schools, social services and higher education will sit on a panel established to assess the scale of underachievement in deprived communities and make sweeping recommendations designed to “close the gap”.

The programme – due to be concluded next year – comes two decades after a landmark study from Ofsted, Access and Achievement in Urban Education, raised major concerns over the issue. A follow-up report was published in 2003.

Sir Michael said: “We still have this long tail of underperformance in our state education system and we’re not closing the gap between the best and the worst, the richest and the poorest. We still have failure which largely resides in the poorest communities.

“Schools in these areas have to counter generations of failure and a culture which is often anti-school and anti-learning. We must show how that is tackled.”

According to figures, children from the poorest homes – those eligible for free school meals – fall behind wealthier classmates throughout compulsory education.

Last year, just a third of these pupils gained five good GCSEs, including the core subjects of English and mathematics, compared with some 62 per cent of other children.

White British boys eligible for free meals officially performed worse than any other group – aside from gypsy and traveller children – with fewer than 29 per cent gaining good grades.

Speaking before a major address to the National College for School Leadership in Birmingham on Friday, Sir Michael said the report would outline how outstanding schools in tough areas gained good results.

He also said it would tackle underperformance among certain groups, with white working-class boys being seen as a “big issue”.

Many of these children were surrounded by “generations of worklessness” following the demise of industries such as coalmining and shipbuilding, he said.

He added: “We need to look back as well as forward. By that I mean, working-class communities in the past valued education, with that spirit of working men’s institutes and technical colleges and so on. Those communities thought long and hard about the future of their children and supported schools and were very much into self-help. We need to bring that back.”

Sir Michael, former head of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, also said that school leaders had to “understand that they are not going to close the gap unless they act as surrogate parents in place of those families who can’t or won’t support their children”.

“A lot of children will depend on the school to help with homework, to come in at weekends and to work in extension programmes,” he said. “Often these youngsters come from unstructured environments where there are few boundaries and few social, cultural and family norms.

“It is really important that school, from the very word go, introduces those boundaries; behaviour boundaries, understanding the difference between right and wrong, talking to children in the way that you expect good families to do.”


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