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.