Every year, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) releases the Consolidated Data Report.  The 160+ page report contains data and information related to school crime and violence, suspensions and expulsions, corporal punishment, student reassignments for disciplinary reasons, alternative learning placements, and dropout rates.

The media typically focus on two data points – the dropout rate and reported acts of school crime and violence.  This article will focus on the dropout rate.  A subsequent piece will look at school crime and violence statistics.

Last year, the dropout rate for students in grades 9 through 13 dropped to 2.29 percent, a slight decrease from 2.39 percent the year before.  Both were a stark contrast to the 5.24 percent rate recorded in 2006-07.  Yet, before we schedule a ticker tape parade for lawmakers and state education officials, it is important to note that it is unimaginably difficult to determine why the dropout rates improved so dramatically over the last ten school years.  That is because an immeasurable, and often irrational, muddle of economic, sociological, psychological, and educational factors informs each teenager’s decision to leave or remain in school.

In some cases, dropping out of school is indicative of a lack of maturity, determination, and other behavioral qualities not necessarily associated with academic ability.  In Knowledge and Decisions, economist Thomas Sowell observed that the “difference between a ‘dropout’ and a graduate is not merely that one has somewhat more information than the other, as a result of staying in an educational institution longer.”  Rather, “Dropouts as a group tend to differ from graduates as a group in perseverance, regularity, and discipline – qualities of value even in jobs where the difference in information between the two groups is of little or no significance.”  While there are exceptions, most public schools are ill-equipped to cultivate perseverance, regularity, and discipline, regardless of their direct and indirect attempts to instill those values.  Families and communities are in the best position to ensure that school-age children have the emotional wherewithal to be successful in school.

According to data reported to DPI by school social workers and counselors, nearly half of the state’s 10,889 dropouts left school because of attendance issues.  They did so despite the fact that the state has compulsory attendance laws and various programmatic measures designed to mitigate chronic absenteeism.  “Lack of engagement with school and/or peers” accounted for 7 percent of dropouts.  Other non-academic reasons included incarceration, unstable home environment, discipline problems, and economic necessity.

On the other hand, schools may reasonably be held responsible for a dropout who has difficulty completing academic coursework. Public school social workers and counselors reported that only 4 percent (433 students) exited their school last year due to academic problems.  Another eleven percent said that they dropped out to enroll in a community college program, presumably to prepare for the GED or HiSET high school equivalency exams.  These dropouts are difficult to characterize because students enroll in a community college program for any number of academic and non-academic reasons, including expediting the attainment of a credential to enter the workforce early.

Aside from strengthening remedial programs, increasing access to career and technical education and individualized instruction through virtual schools, and strategic investments in research-based interventions, is there anything that lawmakers or state education officials can do to keep kids in school through graduation?

Some have argued for years that the state should raise the compulsory attendance age.  Currently, North Carolina law compels students to attend school when they are between the ages of seven and 16 years.  If students cannot legally drop out until their 17th or 18th birthday, proponents reason, then more of them will stay in school and graduate.

Despite our current compulsory attendance age law, however, recall that North Carolina has enjoyed sizable decreases in its dropout rate.  There is no guarantee that raising the attendance age will increase the four-year graduation rate, decrease the annual dropout rate, or curb truancy.  Indeed, a 2013 paper (pdf) published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic found, “Studies do not provide conclusive, empirical evidence for or against increasing the compulsory school attendance age.”  In some cases, the additional enforcement and personnel costs of keeping a ruffian in school exceed long-term economic benefits.