On Campus

Raising the dropout age won’t work

Forcing Alberta high school students to stay an extra year won’t teach them the value of education

It wasn’t that long ago that I was a high school student, so I can still remember how much my 17-year old self loathed high school. While dropping out seemed unfathomable to me, I’ll admit, I used to ditch class frequently. The classes my friends and I chose to be “absent” from were always the classes where we didn’t feel like we were learning anything, and if we weren’t there, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to call us out on it later.

The classes we always went to were the classes where we felt engaged with what we were learning. We didn’t want to fall behind in the course work, and if we ran into our teacher in the hallway after being absent the day before, we knew we were in for an earful. Its not that my school didn’t have a policy against absenteeism, but if no one was looking and we thought we could get away with it, we would. Maybe not every student was as delinquent as I was, but I think that generally sums up many students’ mode of operation.

Students need to see concrete consequences for their actions, and they need to see them fast. That’s why I don’t see how Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock thinks that bumping the compulsory school age to 17 in Alberta will boost the province’s high school graduation rate without additional enforcement strategies in place to back it up. Despite a country-wide boost in high school graduation rates over the past 20 years, the dropout rate in Alberta remains the third highest in the country at 10.4 per cent, ahead of Manitoba at 11.4 per cent and Quebec at 11.7 per cent.

Hancock proposed the change as part of the province’s new Education Act that is likely to be introduced to the legislature this spring. “If the focus of society is to have an educated population, I think it’s worth saying most people don’t finish at the level we want them to by age 16,” He told the Herald.

There are not many people who would agree that at 16, you are finished your formal education.What is confusing, however, is how Hancock believes that young people will stay in school a year longer just because a law is telling them to, without any enforcement tools in place: “By the time people get to age 15 and 16, enforcement is not the biggest tool. It’s societal attitudes,” he said. “People comply to a great extent because it’s the law.”

Enforcing such a law would be difficult, as it could be a challenge to keep track of students if they don’t live at home and their parents don’t have much control over them. However, Hancock’s assumption that people will comply to a law because it’s the law, is setting the law up for failure.

That’s not to say raising the compulsory school age couldn’t be part of an effective strategy in curbing the dropout rate in Alberta. After Ontario raised its compulsory school age to 18 in 2005, the province saw its high school graduation rate climb from 68 per cent in 2003 to 77 per cent in 2009. However, this could probably be credited with the introduction of approved out-of-school programs such as trade apprenticeships and co-op programs for students who want to get out of the classroom, and enforcement measures tied to students’ driver’s licenses, which were coupled with the rising drop out age.

Like Ontario and most provinces across the country, Alberta has also expanded their work experience programs to try and keep high school students interested in working in manufacturing or trades from dropping out. Recognizing that education isn’t one-size-fits all is definitely a step in the right direction towards getting students to value their education. However, thinking that requiring students by law will simply make everything fall into place when it comes to raising the high school graduation rate is simply foolish.

As spokeswoman for Alberta Education, Carolyn Stuparyk, told the Globe and Mail, a large part of the challenge in keeping Alberta students in school is combating the notion that taking a high paying physical labour job in a still relatively strong economy is more exciting than sitting in a classroom.

With that in mind, even if raising the dropout age to 17 does lower the dropout rate in the 16 to 17 age group, its not much of an accomplishment if you’ve raised those statistics by simply forcing students to stay an extra year. I doubt that students will be convinced that taking that $25 an hour job on the oil sands instead of gaining a high school education may not be the best decision another year down the line because someone legislated they should.

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