I Got Left Behind: Thoughts on School Drop-Out Laws

Image via iStockPhoto/Eileen Hart

I don’t remember much about my high school career. Or my middle school career, for that matter. By seventh grade I’d begun to slip through the cracks in America’s broken public education system. I wasn’t lacking one-on-one time or struggling to understand the lessons; our rural school had decent class sizes and I had every resource I needed — save an effective adult advocate — at my disposal. I slipped through the cracks because I was bored. I slipped through the cracks because I was smart and the education system doesn’t know how to deal with kids who are more capable than their peers — especially small rural schools with little resources. Nothing proves that more than the one day of my entire high school experience I remember as clear as day, as if it were yesterday.

I’d recently taken both the ACT and our state’s standardized tests. I didn’t crack a book in preparation of either and since I doubt anyone is going to pursue me for legal infractions now more than a decade old I’ll also admit that I showed up to both chemically altered and on less than four hours sleep. It was a rare day that I’d showed up to school and stayed and the guidance counselor called me to her office. I was downright surly by this point in life and completely disillusioned of the entire educational experience. I flopped my one-hundred and twenty pound self into her chair and glared.

She was a soft-spoken woman and in hindsight I can see how much she cared, but also how lost she was in dealing with me. Some days when I’d skip school she’d drive to my house and knock on the door. That’s commitment. I never answered.

“Diana,” she began “I just wanted to talk to you about your test scores.”

“Yeah.” I’m sure I snapped it back at her.

“You have the highest test scores this school has ever seen.” I remember her words exactly. Ever seen. Today they make me sad that I didn’t hear them. “Why aren’t you here? Why don’t your grades show what you’re capable of?”

And as exactly as I remember her words; so, too, do I remember my response. I shrugged my shoulders, probably rolled my eyes, and said, “I don’t know!”

And what happened next is burned in my memory. She took a deep breath, looked deep into my eyes for a moment and let me go back to class.

I’ve tried during my adulthood to pinpoint the moment at which my mother gave up on me, but I’ve never been able to. Maybe it was a slow slide for her, or maybe its because her advocacy was never as pronounced, as obvious as this woman’s. But I’ve been convinced for many years that this precise moment is the one at which that counselor gave up the fight and there was a time when that haunted me.

Part of President Obama’s aspirations for America’s education system over the next year — those of which he outlined in his State of the Union address — is a nationwide increase in the age at which students are eligible to drop out. In some states that age is sixteen. Eighteen, the president feels, is more appropriate. And many people have sung his praises for it since the speech aired. I, on the other hand, have perhaps never been more torn about a politician’s proclamation.

I want students in school as much as any parent, as any American. But having been in those cracks, having crawled my way out only after many years of struggle I am absolutely certain this is only a Band-Aid; one that will allow a hideous wound to fester beneath. What we need isn’t to lock students in for two more years. If a student is disillusioned by sixteen, forcing them to writhe beneath the system’s thumb for two more years will not change that. I promise you. American public schools are jail-like enough as it is. What we need is to create a system that fosters an environment which makes students want to stay. What we need is to equip education professionals to deal with kids who are being left behind; to give them the tools they need so they don’t have to look into a child’s eyes, take a deep breath and give up the fight — at any age. Because that’s what haunts this country; that’s why we’re losing the next generation.

The drop-out age is the least of our worries. Students are lost long before sixteen and they aren’t recovered thereafter.

  • Adult advocate: you said it. And “What we need is to create a system that fosters an environment which makes students want to stay. What we need is to equip education professionals to deal with kids who are being left behind; to give them the tools they need so they don’t have to look into a child’s eyes, take a deep breath and give up the fight — at any age.” You said it. I was also left behind, and only my [goodness knows what] willed me to keep chugging and fight my way to a place where I was engaged.

    It’s why we removed our daughter from the school, after two years of trying to work with the school to prevent her from “falling through the cracks.” When multiple professionals tell you that your kid is one who will continually fall through the cracks — because of who she is, which reads like a laundry list of a student you’d think schools would want: smart, self-directed, well-behaved, respectful, kind, intelligent — then you have to wonder what kind of system we’re operating here.

    Well stated.

    • Julie,

      We haven’t hit that road block yet, but I worry everyday about our girls not getting what they need at school. Good for you for taking the steps needed to get your daughter the education she deserves.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this story. For me, it was a needed reminder that many issues that seem obviously and unequivocally right are not necessarily so.

    • Faiqa,

      That’s a reminder I need now and again, too. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Jen

    I am about as liberal as they come, and support this president in many ways. But listening to the SOTU and hearing his call for kids to stay in school until 18, I started shouting at the screen. “Really? How about then let’s focus on gifted kids and their needs and then MAYBE THEY WON’T DROP OUT IN RECORD NUMBERS!” Kinda took my husband by surprise. 😉 My SIL dropped out at 16 because she couldn’t take it anymore; now she’s pulling straight A’s, studying to be a Physician’s Assistant, with a 9 month old at home. My husband made it through rural Iowa schools incredibly gifted, but “survived” is the best way to describe it. And we refused to watch our son fall through the cracks, even as we fought for him, and brought him home to homeschool this month.
    Raising the dropout age sounds good, but fixing the damned problems that essentially force kids out is better.

  • Excellent piece. My son would have been in a similar situation had I not pulled him from public school and embarked on our home school adventure with him.

    • Renae,

      I hear of more and more parents who have done the same thing. It’s a shame how badly we’re failing our brightest and most promising kids.

    • Renae, I hear this from so many parents. All I can say is good for you for being his advocate and doing what needed to be done.

  • Mindy

    Thank you, Diana.

    My son pinpoints his loss of interest in school to 5th grade, when he says “they stopped teaching me anything new.”

    If I hadn’t found Shimer College in Chicago which accepts bright kids before they’ve graduated high school, I don’t know what would have happened to him. He almost certainly wouldn’t have graduated from high school. There is no reason a kid with 800 on the SAT reading section should be getting Cs in an English class.

    We need to do a better job of helping kids figure out what they’re good at and what they love and help them to do it. Whether that means high school, or college, or an apprenticeship, or whatever. Where do we start?

    • Mindy — It’s interesting that you say that, I’ve always said that 5th grade is the last grade in which we learned anything new. Sounds like it may be a widespread issue.

  • This is just one reason I homeschool my children. I was completely bored with most of my classes, save a couple, but I did what I needed to do to get the grade because it mattered for college – my ticket out of the small town I lived in. That was my sole inspiration for doing anything in school – so I could get out. I skipped school a lot and got in trouble a lot, but in the end I always have good grades. I always wonder how my time could have been better spent in those years between 16 and 22. I don’t even think college was worth it except that it got me out into the world.

    Sometimes school is the answer. Sometimes it’s not. This country needs to stop trying to run everyone’s lives for them.

  • I didn’t know that this was your story too.

    I am currently listening to my son, in 6th grade, literally CRY because they haven’t learned anything new in math this year. I”m so petrified that we’re going to lose him. I honestly pray that he gets the greatest teachers next year that can challenge him. If we don’t? We’ll either have to figure out a private school or try to homeschool.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Malena

    I’m glad I realized this was happening to my kids. I pulled them out of school at the end of their 3rd and 4th grade years respectively and started homeschooling. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

  • Lisa

    What if they simply made it illegal for any student to drop out before age 18 without passing the GED?

    BTW, in all my years of teaching, I don’t think any of my gifted students dropped out… all of the children that I know who dropped out were at the low end of average. Then again, I have always had the joy of teaching in a college town in top notch schools

  • I was lucky enough to be born and schooled in England when the graduating age was still 16. (They raised it to 18 recently, which I think is a big mistake.) Despite not studying and being incredibly sick, I got As or A*s for almost all my subjects because, like you said, I knew it was my ticket to never have to go through that again.

    At 16 I did a vocational course in Multimedia, which was probably the most fun and productive years of my school since primary school, which was a christian school with very good teachers. Our college (college is 16-18, university is 18+) tutor really understood what young people needed, and managed to challenge us all while instilling some powerful life lessons in us.

    Had I been faced with the option of traditional school till I was 18, or drop out, I would have absolutely dropped out, no question about it. And this is from a young woman who comes from a good family, good support system, good financial backing, all the things that studies typically look at as an indicator of “success” i.e. graduating.

    My husband was American schooled, but he essentially did the same thing; he completed all his requirements for graduating at 16, and then did college work from 16-18, including teaching. This required an in depth knowledge of the system though; his Mom is a teacher. Most kids and their parent’s wouldn’t know how to begin to do that.

    Our daughter is already incredibly bright. We want to do what is best for her both socially and educationally, and while public school is a fantastic lesson in how the world works, we are very hesitant to do that when we both struggled so much with it.

  • I teach in a public charter school in Wisconsin. One of my great pleasures is seeking out challenge and working with students who thrive on more, more, and more learning. As budgets get cut more, more, and more, I fear I will no longer be able to apply my knowledge and experience to working with these students. If I give up, it will not be on my students. If I give up, I will be giving up on the system that insists on creating more and more cracks into which my students fall.

  • Melissa

    I, also, have kids who have struggled in high school because the classes aren’t challenging enough. Two thoughts: 1) the arts programs have been my kids’ saving grace. One is a musician and one is into drama….these are programs that are cut in many systems I guess because they’re considered “soft” subjects or unnecessary and I feel pumping up these areas is important to keeping kids motivated to stay in school and 2) I tell my kids all the time that the school system isn’t perfect but it’s great preparation for a world that is imperfect. Not being challenged or not fitting will probably be something they run up against at various times all their lives and now is the time to learn to cope without giving up or dropping out.

    Also, when my kids whine about how boring and easy their classes are, I direct them to the public library…..your education is really up to you in the end.

    I agree with the 18 year requirement because a kid who is 16 and not in school will likely find trouble.

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