Tune in, turn on, drop out?

By John Frary | Nov 24, 2009

The Maine Dropout Prevention Summit at UM Orono July 24 and 25 drew a mob of dropout prevention coordinators, principals, summer principals, assistant principals, directors, assistant directors, transition coordinators, coordination coordinators, and other such pashas and panjandrums of public education. A report was to appear in a few weeks.

The last time I read such a report its effect was so stupefying that my pulse almost stopped. Despite the danger to my life, I feel obligated to read it when it appears. It's a grim sense of duty, rather than any sense of eager anticipation that motivates me. I'm expecting a rectangle of vapid palaver about meaningful relevant, focused, engaging, innovative, alternative, multiple paths to educational goals. In short, I foresee the same thing as the Department of Education's Shelly Reed, whose words I quote: "People are used to attending meetings and things just don't seem to happen."

I'm prepared to be surprised by the summit's findings. I was surprised back in fall 1999 when the president of the college that employed me for 32 years publicly admitted that almost none of the students who took the lowest remedial English course ever graduated. Translated from Presidentalian, a dialect thick with circumlocutions, this means none of them ever graduated. So surprise is possible, if not probable.

Although not invited, I might have contributed my little fund of knowledge to this summit. I was a dropout myself in my second year in Farmington High School. Actually, "pull-out" might be a better term. My second quarter grades convinced father that I would be more gainfully employed at Frary Wood Turning Company than as a student at FHS. A year of this convinced me that I might be happier as a history professor than a lathe operator. History professors never get sawdust down the backs of their necks in July, where it mixes with sweat and becomes far more annoying than the most tiresome high school teacher.

So we see one solution. Equip every parent with a wood-turning mill, or at least a spindle lathe. That should work in most cases.

Another, cheaper solution might seem to be raising the compulsory attendance age to 18. At present it is 16 with parental consent, 17 without. However, a determined student would have no difficulty in getting through the extra year or two with failing grades. What then? Detain him or her to age 19, 20, 30, 45?

My suggestion is to lower the compulsory age to 13 and modify our labor laws to expand job opportunities. Think about this before dismissing it as silly.

Modern school conditions offer idle brats far more opportunities to do damage to themselves than well-conducted workplaces. A spell of labor at some menial task should make them receptive to the advantages of education, and they are certain to acquire more useful work habits than loafing around in classrooms in a stupor of boredom. Seriously, who ever acquired the work ethic sitting in a high school classroom?

So far the only practical solutions to the problems of dropping out have been adult education or GEDs. The sooner the experience of unskilled, menial work inclines young men and women to seek a better way, the easier and more effectively adult education will work.

My observations of the community college dropout problem have some relevance. After I escaped administration and became a full-time classroom drudge, I made a regular practice of asking evening students returning to college after dropping out if the institution could have made any difference. They all — all — said no. They said they were simply not ready when younger. These were almost invariably good to excellent students with clear reasons for being in college.

I conclude that the best result can be found in concentrating on adult education. Students tend to be resistant to manipulation.

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former congressional candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. and can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com.

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