teen hulk

Henry County, Kentucky. The Kentucky Legislature is in session, and among the bills pending (and likely for passage) is one that would require all children to stay in school until age 18.  In a state always sensitive about its literacy rates and low test scores, the legislators want no more 16-year-old dropouts.  There has been some opposition to this bill (reports the Courier-Journal), including a Nelson County principal who told his legislator the measure would keep unwilling and disruptive kids trapped in the classroom.  But the majority is with Rep. Harry Moberly, a Democrat from Richmond, who thinks we all can agree that “there are no throwaway kids.”  The measure is now being considered in the Senate after passing the House March 4th with a vote of 94 to 6.

The principal is right, though:  some children must be left behind.

We are leaving them behind anyway.  We are not failing them anew by refusing to institutionalize them for another 24 months.  We have been failing them for years, on a long continuum:  we their teachers who have not taught them basic skills, we their neighbors who have not held our local schools to a reasonable standard, and we their parents.  Some kids are failed by their own bodies and minds.  When at 16 these kids can legally withdraw, they may land somewhere and make a life for themselves, or they may disintegrate.  But two more years are unlikely to make a positive educational difference either to them or to their classmates.  And we need to remember the classmates.

One of the standards for school success is a low dropout rate.  Yet what we need is a higher dropout rate—yes, even in Kentucky.  Graduating kids who cannot or will not learn the basics does not make them a success.  It makes us hypocrites, and gives them nothing more than a long, painful lesson in failure and cant.

A few years ago a young man named “Trey” showed up for a while at our Wednesday night kids’ Bible program at church.  His father was an alcoholic and not around.  He lived with his mother, her current boyfriend and some half-siblings, and she had long ago given up either advocating or taking responsibility for her son.  Trey has some kind of cognitive problem—a severe dyslexia, maybe, plus problems focusing his attention.  He couldn’t read a lick.  But as it happened, a friend of mine had tutored his older brother and taught this boy to read, so I guessed Trey was probably teachable, given the right method and a good teacher.

But if so the school had not figured out who or how, and now at age 13 he was on the cusp of being unreachable.  I knew at the time we had just a few months there at church to help him, and in that short window we failed.  He didn’t show up often enough on Wednesdays.  He didn’t want extra tutoring at school.  He was approaching the precipice of manhood, and was stuck at school all day as it was, and I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to try harder or to stay later.  The school pulled him out of most classes, since he couldn’t do the work, and gave him two teachers whose job it was to prepare him for the statewide test in the spring.  Instead of continuing to try to teach him to read, they walked him through the plot of Huckleberry Finn in order to prepare him for the test questions he would have to answer verbally.  They had to do this, because the school’s all-important rating is tied to the improved test scores of even its most difficult and challenged students.  Hence the school had every incentive to spend a lot of time and human resources to teach this kid nothing.

Alternative programs (or at least the hope of funding them some future day) are also mentioned in this bill, and that reminds me of “Jessica,” who several years ago lost her father to a sudden and early death, was unable to deal with her anger and grief, rebelled against the grandparent she went to live with, flunked out of regular and then alternative high school, and disappeared.  She found herself somewhere to live, got hired as a sales clerk, survived on her own, and is now back in touch with her family, employed and in college.  She has always been a good and bright young woman, with none of the learning disabilities Trey has, and a much more supportive family.  Still, no one was able to make this process go faster for her.  She had to work her tough luck out for herself.

Like my state’s First Lady Jane Beshear, I would like to see real “improvements in student achievement.”  Like Rep. Moberly, I want to live in a world in which nobody is thrown away.  I know that if my own children mess up I am going to take cold comfort in assuring myself that everybody makes mistakes.  But we can’t pretend all mistakes can be prevented by laws and programs, or that educating someone is like filling an empty cup.  Education requires many things, and among them is a teacher’s persuasiveness and a student’s willingness to be persuaded.  In the best cases you get inoculation—a good teacher can infect students with a love for knowing things.  But the students have to be willing.  It can’t be done perforce.

And for young people like Trey and Jessica, more of what has failed already is unlikely to be the fix.  Trey didn’t need more school.  The best hope for Trey was something like an apprenticeship, where he might find work, finally, that he could do.  He might have failed there too–very likely–but at least he’d be making a step towards adulthood, not locked in truant officer-enforced juvenility.  He might have found some motivation to try education again.  Unfortunately, at his age working rather than going to school was not legally possible, and soon, probably, it will be legally impossible longer.

I’m going to leave aside for now the case against compulsory schooling or discussion of any of the many problems of public (and often private) education.  I am arguing narrowly here against making a weak system worse.  To have the State of Kentucky force all kids to stay in school nine months a year till they’re 18 is not nurturing public policy.  It’s counterproductive, resource-draining, miserable for the kids who want out, and unfair to the other students who (more or less) want to be there.

Kids will tell you sometimes, with an eyeroll, that being in school is like being in jail.  For some of them, I think it really is.

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  1. Teachers can teach, inspire, attempt to motivate, nudge, cajole, beg, plead, persuade, and entertain . . . but they can’t learn FOR the student. That is the student’s responsibility.

  2. Katherine, I agree with you completely. We hear all the time about plans, hatched by teachers and administrators and the politicians who get re-elected by aligning themselves with them, for “alternative schooling.” Obviously, such diverse alternatives–charter schools, etc.–are helpful to many. But what we really need are more alternatives to schooling: as you say, apprenticeships, work-study programs available at an earlier age, and more. The children which inevitably will be left behind will still go somewhere; by putting all our collective eggs into the meritocratic education basket, we leave at even more of a loss those who, for whatever reason, good or ill, cannot fit themselves into it.

  3. I couldn’t possibly disagree more with you. There is no way any 13 year old in this country has possibly mastered all the skills needed to be successful in today’s world. When you consider that Trey was struggling anyway, it makes it all the more apparent that he needs to stay in school.

    You suggest an apprenticeship program. First of all, doesn’t being an apprentice itself imply that further education is needed? Secondly, an apprenticeship in what if he doesn’t have even the most basic of skills mastered?

    I received an excellent post-secondary education, but I grew up in a family of tradesmen. I still do electrical and carpentry work for my father or uncles on a fairly regular basis. I can tell you that the math skills for either one of those trades, never mind the higher level thinking required to be successful, are going above Trey’s.

    He could, I suppose, be a janitor or stock shelves. However, if he can’t read a lick, how is he going to know which shelf to put the tomato soup on and which to put the vegetable soup?

    You are correct that giving some kids more of what has already failed them likely won’t help. The answer, then, is to give them what they do need. A vocational school can teach him a valuable trade while at the same time making sure they have the underlying academic skills needed to make it in this world not only economically, but also as a citizen and as a person.

    Giving up on them is not the answer.

  4. I cannot help but wonder if there is some attempt to manipulate the economy by delaying workforce entry through additional schooling. By warehousing the youngsters another few years, there will be less competition for fewer jobs. It is a sad fact that my generation was one of the last wherein a high school dropout could actually make a living in rural America. In my rural area there are conversely many college graduates working in car rental business and hotels for low wages. I am baffled by the fact that 4 years of college is a prerequisite to become a sales clerk.

    What is really scary sometimes is talking to some really old people who had 8 years of rural “common school” education and finding out they learned more civics and literature than today’s typical college graduate.

  5. American kids are left behind in middle school. There is no efficient way to hold the middle school teachers AND kids accountable for the education process. Any high school teacher will tell you that kids are “lost” in middle school. Kids who cannot or do not want to learn the basics should not go to high school but to an apprenticeships, work-study program. There should be an exam, tests etc. which will recommend a kid for high school. Even a sixth grader will work his butt off to get to high school. So you need alternatives to high school which should remain college-oriented. When I came to this country and asked a teacher why there were no vocational schools (like in Germany), he told me this would be considered a discriminatory practice by many American parents. In other way, “you don’t want my kid to go to college! I’ll sue you!”. One need a “sifting and sorting” educational system at an earlier age so that each kid’s own abilities should be addressed. If a kid attends a vocational school, it does not mean he cannot take some make up courses and get a high school diploma, too. But do not make high school compulsory.

  6. The last thing we need is the federal gummint in edumacation..used to be a kid could go get as job in heavy industry but you know what happened there…’progress?’
    I wonder if it’ll end up with roving packs of bandetti?

  7. High School should not be compulsory, but it should be available.

    If someone drops out of high school, they should be able to go back to high school at 24 or 34 or 44 when they finally decide to grow up and participate.

    By the same token, if they are disruptive, they are dropped from the program. Tell them they will always be welcome when they are ready to participate.

    Shun and shame are the greatest tools of civilization, but reconciliation is not optional.

  8. Thanks all.

    I am not suggesting emancipating kids like Trey. I am suggesting what they need may not be, at 13 or 16, for many reasons good and bad, American-style public school. More than anything else at the time I knew him, Trey needed a break from his years of failure and to find out that work is something different than school, and something he could possibly succeed at, and hence possibly a pleasure. In a rural community certainly (but surely in cities as well) there is work a nonreader can do and skills he can learn. Then one would hope he’d catch some motivation (as previously argued) for learning the basic skills that will enable him to become an indepedent and functional adult. If the school finds him unteachable, what possible point could there be in keeping him there? But I repeat myself.

    I have no argument against vocational schools in theory. They are not an option here, though there is at least one in Louisville. There was, however, a neighbor who would have given Trey a chance as a farmhand. At thirteen he would have made maybe half a farmhand, but it would have been a start.

    I’m not sure I’d put a 44-year-old back in tenth grade. That’s a common nightmare for sound reasons. But community colleges largely serve as high school redos for a lot of grown-ups of all ages, and these schools provide a valuable service when they do.

  9. Dear Ms Dalton,

    Maybe to all of this, but your argument relies heavily on the assumption that some students would benefit from being allowed to leave institutionalized education before they turn 18. That’s probably right, but it’s probably also true that for as many cases as there are of students who would’ve benefited from leaving school early, there are just as many (or more, most likely) who either left school early and oughtn’t to have, or stayed in school against their wishes and were better for it.

    Absent data showing which group of students is the larger (those helped or hindered by being forced to stay in school longer) or which was helped or harmed more greatly by compulsory attendance, the question has got to turn to something like: who’s qualified to decide when a young person would benefit more from not being in school than she would from being in school. No one is going to agree on how to answer that question. 16-year olds? Parents? Teachers? For each group, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Often, 16-year olds don’t know what’s best for themselves. Less often (but often enough) parents underestimate the limitations of institutional education. And just as often, teachers overestimate what they can do for some students.

    So maybe the best way to handle this is some modified version of what your state is proposing (Though, this may be just what it’s proposing–I haven’t followed the story any further than what you’ve discussed here). Students are required to stay in school until 18, but at 16 (or whenever), they can begin to enroll in internship and apprenticeship programs coordinated through the school with, say, outside employers, and the school would offer supplementary courses in whatever ‘trades’ for which students intern. Such a proposal would have the benefit of catching students who otherwise would’ve wrongly dropped out, while students who would’ve right to leave will get acquire many of the benefits they would’ve by leaving.

    One notes that this stratification of high school education begins to sound quite a lot like the successful British version, with “vocational high schools,” “sixth form, and “sixth form college” institutions.

  10. Hear, hear. All so true.

    The professional yammerers one hears on NPR and the like get only far enough into this issue to demonstrate the utter hollowness of modern sociological thinking (Do they even bother calling it that anymore?). They are all just so very “concerned” about a huge swathe of people they never think of or come into contact with outside the premises of ideology. Perhaps a few tip-toe now and then into a “low-performance” school, armed with tutoring manuals, a heart brimming with the Good News of Education, and a dear wish to smuggle a few unfortunates into the land of Options and Choices.

    All I want to say is, please, please, somebody, proclaim boldly the irrefutable truth: High school sucks and middle school sucks more.

    Of course, I base my impressions of high school mostly on hearsay. I didn’t last more than 2 days myself.

    I often forget that I can properly be deemed a “drop-out.” I wonder how many like me there are. Kids who did well in school, even very well, and had every advantage a sociologist could identify, but nonetheless got the heck outta there as soon possible (In my case, at age 14. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for “homeschooling” me!).

  11. I know, we can take the teachers who cannot be fired and put them in charge of the dear kiddies who cannot abide the school system.

    Give em knives, guns and bullets and maybe two problems shall be solved at once. I’d fear for the sub-par teachers in this gambit, the youth are in better physical shape but I know their Union shall come up with some helpful tool to create a fair fight.

    That is what education is now isn’t it? A fight between the serenity of the teacher and the need for sensation by the student.

    Just make sure that whatever is done, pedagogy aint got anything to do with it, its so dull.

  12. I agree with the author of this essay. I taught many students of varying abilities as a seventh and eighth grade math and science teacher across the hall from CDC (relatively severe) and down the hall from ERC(milder) special education classes. They sent their students with assistants to my room to learn to interact with normal peers during activities, even if they could only watch or follow instructions from other kids. One year I had a dyslexic male student who was sent to my science class as a behavioral reward. He was on the edge of severe behavior problems as a child of normal intellect in a class for below-normal kids. We pulled him into my math class, and I discovered that his father (a successful local construction contractor) was also dyslexic and illiterate. I asked him how he succeeded and what math I should teach his son. He asked me to teach his son mental math, and told me that the boy had already expressed interest in the construction business. He could hire a secretary to write letters and contracts while he did estimates in his head. The math was the important thing. Formal, systematic mental math instruction made a valuable addition to my curriculum and helped my “normal” students as well. The student was already apprenticing informally on week-ends and during the summer. It should be an option for other kids as well.

  13. Mitzi, I can understand the frustration of the dyslexic student in the below normal class. Dyslexia presents a learning difficulty, but it is not a sign of impaired intelligence. By way of full disclosure, I am a mild dyslexic and had difficulty in learning to read. While some may point out that this contradicts my thesis that impaired intellect and dyslexia are not connected, I respond that one of my sons is a severe dyslexic, and he took remedial reading AND advanced algebra at the same time. He recently graduated with a Master’s in literature from CUA. He was fortunate in having a mother who is herself a teacher, and could work with him. It was a struggle of epic proportions, but she not only taught him to read, but to love literature.

  14. In my years dealing with engineers, I noticed that no small number self-selected into engineering and a primary reliance on mathematics because they suffered from varying degrees of dyslexia. Some of these folks had poor verbal abilities but were extremely smart and intuitive on many levels. I envied their facility with complex engineering methods. One of the deficiencies of public education ..and it is only getting worse with the standardizations of “NCLB” is that it is not interested in ferreting out and dealing productively with the various forms of intelligence from the intellectual to kinetic to mathematic/dyslexic to physical to lingual etc etc. Perhaps customization really is too much to ask for but it would seem to me that it might create happier people and a more widely skilled polity. Standardization is great for the inert, with humans, equalization reduces quality, canceling out the benefits intended .

  15. Kentucky, Kentucky, DON’T DO IT!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’m a former secondary teacher, folks, and one of the few things making troubled public school districts manageable is the unforeseen blessing that occurs when some asshole “student,” who’s been a plague to his peers, his teachers, everybody, for years on end, decides to drop out. A lot of it happens sophomore year, and you can almost hear the behaved students, the serious students, breath a sigh of relief.

    Man, oh, man. Do not get me started on this. READ Theodore Sizer’s two books on “Horace” and school reform. READ that old Verso Marxist book called Youth and History (forget the author–Gillis?)


    Add More Kick-Outs to the Drop-Outs!

    The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few.

    Teenage-dom is an Opiate

    Teachers, Not Babysitters!

    Achilles (Fill in the Blank–Franklin, Galileo, Aquinas, Churchill–)Didn’t Need No Stinkin’ High School and He Wouldn’t Have Stayed Put in One.

    There Is No Such Thing As a Right to an Education. Nor Is There A Right to Be A Punk Who Gets Thirty Referrals Every Year And Still Gets to Go to “School.

    See, I think education reform #1 is tougher discipline. Vouchers are a side-show. You start with massive reform that makes it near-impossible for lawyers to go after schools for kicking repeat serious behavior offenders out FOR GOOD. Go work at Taco Bell, asshole, if they’ll hire you. Get a taste of reality. Repent, and talk to those folks at Dalton’s church. Come back for a GED when you’ve settled down. Yes, a necessary component of this reform would be fostering better adult-education opportunities, and perhaps also beefed-up juvenile sections of police departments. But trust me, nothing would send test scores higher than such a reform. But people gotta get past this “throwaway kids” and “untouchable right to education” rhetoric that denies the reality of free-will.

  16. “In a state always sensitive about its literacy rates and low test scores, the legislators want no more 16-year-old dropouts.”

    I sometimes wonder how much of the nonsense going on around here can be traced back to nothing more than insecurity.

    Excellent observations.

  17. We know how young children learn how to read. It’s called phonics. We know how they learn to cipher. It’s called arithmetic. We know how they learn to write. It’s called reading. I would be happy, happy, happy to debate anybody at any time and any place who takes issue with these timeless truths. Most of our children can master these things by the age of fourteen or so. I can give you many examples of schools, from 1940s small towns (or, for that matter, 1630 small towns) that did this and continue to do it very well. I’m the President of the Board of a small charter public school that simply by giving homework, teaching our teachers how to teach, being unburdened by unions, having no special advantages of class, race or gender, that in just a few years has produced test scores among the highest in our state. With kids learning at this rate, the later objects of their educations can be debated, but they will all be able to get along. I couldn’t possibly disagree more with Mr. Brian Keaney above, not possibly.

  18. Perhaps what is needed more than compulsory attendance is a nice set of Oak Pillory at the entrance to the school . Students are allowed two trips to them for disruption and malingering and if there is a third infraction, they are summarily shipped off to the White House Fellows program as preternaturally inclined toward sociopathy.

    By all means, there should be a set outside the teachers lounge as well. Here, boredom meters shall clang if the teachers fail to keep their pedagogical efforts compelling and if they exceed two trips to the Pillory, they will be shipped off to Hollywood to write Television scripts for minimum wage.

  19. If your suggestion is to leave the legal dropout age at 16, I agree. If you think a 13-year-old should be able to leave school, I don’t. It’s possible a kid will have a change of heart between 16 and 18 if forced to attend school, but not at all likely. Between 13 and 18, however, a lot can happen.

    A situation like Trey’s requires there be allowable exceptions to the rule, not a change to the rule itself. I don’t think it likely you’re going to find more than a small handful of 13-year-olds (I’m inclined to think none at all) with normal learning ability who should reasonably be allowed to drop out of school because there’s just no purpose to keeping them around if they don’t want to be there. Serious learning disabilities are not a normal situation and should be handled outside the regular rulebook.

  20. I quit highschool halfway through my senior year. I went and passed a silly state test, and got a silly piece of paper. I went to college a few times, but realized how most of the college education is also worthless as well (unless you are pursuing a science, or an academic career).

    I’m a software engineer now. I always loved to learn, but I always hated school. How was I able to become a software engineer? Well after suffering through the pain of crappy jobs like bagging groceries, I decided I actually wanted a better life.

    I always liked computers, so when I decided that I ‘wanted’ to learn, I was able to.

    It is the freedom to fail that creates the possibility of success. Let kids drop out. Let them find out how hard life is. Let them make mistakes. It’s the only way they will realize how important education is. And when people want to be educated, you won’t have to lock them in the classroom.

    Liberty leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to wisdom and wisom leads to success.

  21. The requirement to attend school until their 18th birthday or receive a high school diploma tethers the more competent persons to the herd. What if the person does Master’s level work before the age of eighteen but disdains a high school diploma?

  22. I agree completely. In fact, much of the problem with the current state of education in general is this Factory-Style-One-Size-Fits-All approach.

  23. A cautionary tale, and I’m sorry to come late to the comments. I’ll just add that while not necessarily disagreeing with most of the specific points, it can come down to a simple shift in the semantics.

    Instead of real “improvements in student achievement” I submit we should start with real improvements in serving the needs and potentials of the student.

    The author touches on this indirectly at several points. The linear value judgments are forced on the children, reinforced by irrational parental expectations, and abetted by politicians and politically-sensitive administrations. A parent can hope for the best for the child, but as soon as the parent imposes what will be best, instead of working up to knowing what the child is capable of achieving, that child will be lost.

  24. The problem with this is that you aren’t helping anyone out by keeping around a student that doesn’t want to do the work. You make it harder for that child, harder for the teachers, and harder for the students who actually want to learn.

    There is also the fact that they will likely not show up even if you don’t allow them to drop out. I remember that here you weren’t allowed to drop out until you were 16 and there were all kinds of people who rather than dropping out just stopped showing up at 14 or 15. While its incredibly sad you can’t force them to be there.

  25. know, we can take the teachers who cannot be fired and put them in charge of the dear kiddies who cannot abide the school system.

    Give em knives, guns and bullets and maybe two problems shall be solved at once. I’d fear for the sub-par teachers in this gambit, the youth are in better physical shape but I know their Union shall come up with some helpful tool to create a fair fight.

  26. We know how young children learn how to read. It’s called phonics. We know how they learn to cipher. It’s called arithmetic. We know how they learn to write. It’s called reading. I would be happy, happy, happy to debate anybody at any time and any place who takes issue with these timeless truths. Most of our children can master these things by the age of fourteen or so. I can give you many examples of schools, from 1940s small towns (or, for that matter, 1630 small towns) that did this and continue to do it very well. I’m the President of the Board of a small charter public school that simply by giving homework, teaching our teachers how to teach, being unburdened by unions, having no special advantages of class, race or gender, that in just a few years has produced test scores among the highest in our state

  27. there is a growing problem where i live to. I was going to go into the teaching profession. Given how society has changed so much in the last decade. the youngsters are totally different now in terms of attitude than they were a decade ago.
    this is a social problem and has greatly affected the teaching industry.

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