Many of our students are productively involved in learning for not more than half of the average school day. Other students participate in no productive learning because they have dropped out altogether. This waste must easily constitute our greatest misuse of natural resources.
In a book entitled, "Winning Teen-agers Over", the private logic of the students who stay in school but who drop out passively is described: "You adults are going to tell us what to do, when to do it, how to do it. It's clear that we can't change anything, so I'll tell you what you can do. You can have it. It's your school. I want to get out of this place some day, so I'll do enough academic work to get by but you can bet I won't do any more than just enough."
These students feel they have no choice. Many students put up with the system in order to get on to college where they hope things will be different and they will have more freedom. Many are doomed to disappointment in this.
Students, especially high school students, need to have some say in their education. In our present system they are given few choices.
Alternative programs offer educational options and learning opportunities suitable for the students' needs, interests, talents and aspirations.
If they do not conform, they are violating the law. The authoritarian system imposed on students seems especially strange when we claim to be training our young people for democracy.
When do they ever have the opportunity to make choices and learn to accept the consequences of these choices. In dropping out passively, many students feel they are defeating the system. Some do it to punish parents. In actual fact they are being self-destructive.
There is another ever-growing group of students who drop out of school physically. The numbers are staggering at a time when the country can ill afford to lose educated workers. The United States will not be able to compete in the international marketplace without them. Most states' answer to this problem is to make it more difficult for students to stay in school by having more requirements for graduation and by requiring harder proficiency tests. Most curricula are now dictated by the tests and are becoming even more boring and irrelevant to the students. Instead of seeking to change the ineffective practices which cause apathy and failure, we impose more regulation and conformity, thus worsening the problem.
Some schools offer alternative programs their disaffected potential drop-outs.
For many of these students, school learning has become irrelevant. They have to face problems which would overwhelm most of us. Alternative programs offer educational options and learning opportunities suitable for the students' needs, interests, talents and aspirations.
Their initial emphasis is not on academics but on developing in the students the skills of self-discipline, dealing with frustration, problem solving, and learning to use basic social skills.
This approach has proven to be very effective.
Another option is to build schools around career-oriented curricula.
There are such schools in New York. One is built around students' interest in medical and nursing careers. Another is built around interest in business careers.
Traditional vocational schools can be a robust option for students not academically oriented.
Students should be permitted to leave school at 16, not as dropouts but with some kind of certificate, and with the option to resume their education at a later date to complete any program. Children now mature to physical adulthood younger than earlier generations. In our present educational system, their adolescence is unnecessarily prolonged.
Until we make some changes in the system we will continue to have students who are frustrated and resentful.
Dropouts become uninformed citizens unable to function in a democracy. Our country cannot afford this state of affairs.
First published in 1989