Closing the Loop: Michigan Raises Dropout Age

Chris's picture

By Diane McMillan
Associate Director

A  piece of legislation that is tucked into the RTTT bills could have real ramifications for secondary educators.  It is now Michigan law that, beginning with this year's 6th graders (the Class of 2016), the age for student compulsory attendance is 18.  This provision of the law closes the loop in educational policy that began with the college and career ready assessment, Michigan Merit Examination, the Michigan Merit Curruculum graduation requirements, and the high school content expectations.

This measure has been talked about and proposed many times in the last few years in various forms like linking the ability to get a driver's license to school attendance, or raising the age to 17 or 18.  It's hard for educators to justify higher and more rigorous standards for all, while letting 16-year-olds make a monumental decision that will affect the rest of their lives.

We've all seen the devastating effects that dropping out of high school has on our state, but most importantly on our students. But, raising the dropout age to 18 has been complicated and controversial.

To be sure, a huge escape clause is included.  All it takes is parental consent, and since many of our students who are at risk of dropping out carry considerable sway with their parents at 16, gaining that permission may happen. We also know that we have many students who are in our schools in body, but attend infrequently, or have mentally dropped out already.

That's the hard part. We now have to keep our students who are displaying tendencies toward dropping out engaged and on track. We also have to work together, elementary, middle level, and high school, to keep all of our students off the dropout path.

What will we need?

  • More sophisticated early warning systems that flag students as early as 4th or 5th grade who are showing the signs of a dropout.  Research and our own professional common sense tells us who they are--now we have to act early, often, and effectively.
  • More interventions and support for these students--again, early, focused, and sustained.
  • More opportunities for personalized learning both in alternative settings and through online learning.
  • More focus on mastery learning and less on seat time
  • More options for students to recover credit
  • More outreach to students to return to school even after they have officially dropped out. Many students who drop out immediately recognize their mistake.  Experts on dropout recovery say that most students regret their decision within 10 days to one month after dropping out.  We need create efficient methods for reaching out to drop outs and flexible options to get them back in sync.

About that note--If I were queen, I'd have a dropout permission form that read like one of those medical ads with all the disclaimers. You know the ones. The consequences of taking the medication seem worse than the benefits! 

Students who want to drop out would have to know and sign off on the facts about dropping out like, the likelihood of a lifetime of unemployement or underemployment, the $12,337,572,780* estimated additional lifetime income they could gain if they graduate with their class, the link between dropouts and the prison population, or the link between dropouts and chronic health issues and disease, etc. A note from the parent that's equal to "Please let Johnny ruin his life by dropping out of school," doesn't get it for me.

Yes, I know that this law will be challenging and, perhaps, difficult to administer, especially since dropping out at 16 years old has be ingrained in Michigan's culture as almost a rite of passage. Change is always hard. But Michigan has finally drawn the line in the sand.  Michigan will not sanction "educational suicide" for 16-year-olds.  Raising the dropout age to 18 is the right thing to do.

*from the The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools, Alliance for Excellence, October 2007.