Elements of compulsion within our system of public education should be limited to requiring that students acquire the knowledge and develop the skills needed to function independently. We have a right to expect people to become sufficiently well-educated to avoid becoming a burden on society. In a country founded on the principle of individual liberty, we should be very cautious about going beyond that point.
The introduction of compulsory education at the end of the nineteenth century was a blessing for our nation’s children, who were routinely exploited by business owners. They were forced to work long hours operating dangerous machinery in dark, dirty factories. Parents, who were often unemployed and unable to support themselves or their families, had little choice but to send their children off to the factories. In conjunction with child labor laws, compulsory attendance statutes got children out of the factories and into school.
The age at which children could leave school was raised after World War II in response to a legitimate concern on the part of our government and the business community that when the young men who had been serving in the armed forces returned home and started looking for work, our economy would quickly slide back into a depression. Part of the plan to avoid a severe post-war recession was to keep as many young people as possible out of the job market by encouraging and/ or requiring them to attend school. The G. I. Bill offered returning servicemen the opportunity to attend college. As an added precaution, to keep teens out of the job market, many states strengthened their compulsory attendance laws.
Our economy has gone through a lot of changes since that time. Today a significant percentage of students taking a full schedule of high school classes are also working during the school year. We have succeeded in keeping these students in school, but we no longer worry too much about keeping them out of the workforce. While some members of the business community complain about the failure of our schools to adequately prepare young people for the workplace, businesses hire young people who are still in school, and in many cases work them so many hours that it clearly interferes with the process of getting an education. These students often have a great deal of trouble finding time to do homework. When they have worked late the night before, they find it difficult to even stay awake, let alone put forth a reasonable effort during classes.
In some cases, the pressure on teens to work during the school year comes from parents, often single parents, who are living in poverty and who need the extra income their teen-age children can earn. A significant number of working students do not really need to work, but they want things their parents are not willing or able to buy them—a nice car, nice clothes, the latest video games, etc. Teens who live at home, without the expense of maintaining a household, can work for minimum wage and still realize a tremendous increase in their buying power, since all, or nearly all, of the money they earn is disposable income.
Teens are often quite self-conscious about “fitting in” and being popular. They are particularly vulnerable to the machinations of advertisers. They are targeted by companies that market products or services that appeal to young people. Peer pressure adds to the cravings created by advertising. Showing up at school without being fashionably attired is a sure means of incurring ridicule and the fashions change regularly to make certain that cash continues to flow to designers catering to teens. Fewer and fewer teens are content to borrow the family car occasionally or to drive an older, less expensive car. Owning and maintaining a car and paying the insurance premiums levied on teen-age drivers leads some high school and college students to work far more hours than they should if they are to be considered full-time students.
When students are immersed in a society that glorifies consumption, wealth, and instant gratification, is it really so surprising that teens attempt to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous? For an ever-increasing number of high school students, schoolwork comes in a distant second to a job. Can we really expect students who are working twenty or more hours per week, and devoting additional time to spending the money they have earned, to devote themselves to the process of getting an education? Becoming well-educated is a lengthy process. It can be difficult to resist the short term pay-off of low-skill, low wage jobs, particularly when teens are subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda aimed at them as consumers.
Many businesses require a high school diploma for jobs that make little, if any, use of the knowledge gained or the skills developed in high school. Requiring a diploma may be a convenient way of screening job applicants, but it has the effect of keeping marginal students in school beyond the age at which they could legally leave. Many of these students have little or no interest in learning what is being taught in their classes, but they remain in school because our society insists on classifying anyone without a high school diploma as virtually unemployable. Their obvious lack of interest is often contagious, and as the percentage of non- motivated students in classes increases, it becomes more and more of a challenge for teachers to remain motivated. The climate of an entire school can be poisoned by the presence of “students” who want a piece of paper that says they are educated, but who have no real interest in becoming well-educated.
While we should do everything in our power to convince students to focus on getting an education, if despite our best efforts to motivate them, they decide that the money they can earn by working is more important than school, it might be wise to let them get some early exposure to the drudgery of low-skilled employment. At some point the prospect of a being stuck in a dead-end job for the rest of their lives would motivate many dropouts to return to school. If, on the other hand, they are able to live happily without a formal education, so be it!
We are not doing students who put forth little or no effort any favors by convincing them to stay in school simply to improve their employability. Individuals with limited skills are likely to earn far less money over the course of their working years than people with more marketable skills. The gap in overall earnings could be narrowed somewhat if they began working sooner.
The real tragedy of our present system of compulsory education is that compulsion is not necessary. If a program or course of study effectively addresses genuine educational needs and interests, it will be well-attended. We will not have to compel students to attend. Learning is a big part of what life is all about. We are constantly confronted with, and involved in, situations that make some form of learning advisable, and often unavoidable. Responding to the genuine needs of people at various stages of their lives will offer plenty of opportunities for educators to be of service. We should make the system fit the needs of people, rather than making people fit the needs of the system.
The other critical point to understand about compulsory learning is that it is not very effective. We can no longer afford to ignore the basic truth that when students are forced to learn, they don’t learn very efficiently. When what is being taught is of no immediate utility or interest to a student, the bits of knowledge acquired will soon be forgotten and any skills developed will soon atrophy. Spending thousands of dollars per year on young people who have no real interest in learning is a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money. A “student” who does not pay attention in class, who has a strong aversion to reading, who does not complete homework assignments or study for tests, in other words, someone who generally makes a determined effort to avoid learning, is not a student in any meaningful sense of the term.
All of the factors contributing to a lack of motivation on the part of students are magnified by the fact that education is compulsory up to a certain age. We should repeal compulsory attendance laws, or at least lower the age at which students have the option of leaving school.