WHEN IT comes to keeping young people in school, Massachusetts can take some inspiration from its neighbor to the north. In 2007, New Hampshire raised the mandatory school age from 16 to 18 as a way to reduce the high school dropout rate. State officials gave local school systems two years to meet the challenge. They succeeded beyond expectations. The dropout rate has fallen by nearly half. No one guffaws when Governor John Lynch predicts it will fall to zero in the 2012-13 school year.
The Granite State took a sensible, phased-in approach to finding ways to keep all 16- and 17-year-olds engaged in school. Efforts included online course options, internships, independent studies, and expanded vocational training. Teachers were able to personalize school for their more challenging students. And the combination worked. Now the Granite State’s dropout rate is less than 1 percent.
The challenge in Massachusetts is greater. The state’s dropout rate hovers around 3 percent. But some of the state’s so-called gateway cities, including Springfield and Holyoke, show rates three or more times higher. A two-year window is a luxury Massachusetts can’t afford. The best course would be to raise the dropout age to 18 and implement the law immediately. Students and educators here tend to respond best under pressure, as they did when elevating student performance to satisfy the MCAS graduation requirement. The change in the law would also keep students in school as they reach a higher level of maturity — the kind that appreciates how dismal life can be for high school dropouts.
A variety of anti-dropout measures are in place in Boston and elsewhere, including credit recovery courses, evening academies for working students, school-to-work internships, and systems to keep ninth-graders from falling so hopelessly behind that they are almost certain to drop out a few years down the road. What is missing, however, is the kind of coordinated efforts by schools, state budget writers, and community groups seen in New Hampshire.
Bills to raise the compulsory school age in Massachusetts have been drifting aimlessly through the Legislature for years. Education analysts warn that simply raising the mandatory school age to 18 without creating new strategies won’t be enough. But Massachusetts lawmakers and educators already know what works. They just aren’t moving quickly enough.