Sunday, October 14, 2012

Staying in School

"Most countries have only ten years of compulsory education. Compulsory education in the US varies from state to state, but the average requires anyone who is under 16 years of age to be either enrolled in a school or home-schooled. This means that on average, the US only has 10-11 (including kindergarten) years of compulsory education. The last two years in the US K-12 education already include courses in tertiary education. These are called advanced placement (AP) or international baccalaureate (IB) courses. Examples are calculus (up to multivariable) and AP chemistry. Students who take AP chemistry usually have already finished one year of basic chemistry and one year of advanced chemistry, so in sum, a student could have taken three years of chemistry while in high school. Some schools in the US can not offer these, and consequently, there is great heterogeneity among US schools."

Compulsory education requires responsibility from two sides: the learner and the provider. Requiring a given number of years of basic education without providing the resources is plain wrong. In addition, compulsory means a strong and determined implementation of a requirement. In the Philippines, kindergarten is now compulsory. Unfortunately, all that this means is that a student can not be enrolled in Grade 1 without completing kindergarten first. Compulsory education in the United States means someone goes to prison if a child fails to attend school. Of course, a government is only justified to take such action if the government provides all the necessary resources to attend school. When my son reached 5 years of age, I received a phone call from our school county board asking why my son has not attended the public school in our neighborhood during the first week of the school year. I had to inform the authorities that I had already enrolled my son in a Catholic school. This is what compulsory education seriously means. 

In the past few weeks, the Hamilton project at the Brookings Institution hosted the following forum: Back to School: Promoting Attainment and Achievement in K-12 Education. One of the papers presented in this forum is from graduate student Derek Messacar and associate professor Philip Oreopoulos from the University of Toronto:

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High school dropouts fare substantially worse than their peers on a wide variety of long-term economic outcomes. On average, a dropout earns less money, is more likely to be in jail, is less healthy, is less likely to be married, and is unhappier than a high school graduate. But despite this growing education gap, dropout rates have remained mostly unchanged over the past three decades. This problem disproportionately affects low-income and minority students: among these populations, nearly half of all individuals do not graduate with their class. This paper presents a plan to increase the high school graduation rate. A key element of the proposal is for all states to increase their minimum school-leaving age to eighteen. In many studies, this intervention has been found to have a significant positive impact on several long-term outcomes. The proposal also calls for more resources for enforcement of new and existing compulsory-schooling laws, to maximize the impact of the policy change. More effort is also needed to keep students engaged in school, even at an early age. If states invest in effective support programs, they can further increase graduation rates and reduce future costs of enforcing compulsory-schooling policies. All of these interventions should be implemented with the goal of strengthening America’s primary education system to promote college attendance and improve career outcomes among America’s youth. 
The paper begins with enumerating how school dropouts affect society as a whole.  School dropouts generally face higher unemployment and a significant fraction fall below the poverty line. In the United States, school dropouts by the age of fifty earn on the average $16.50 an hour, working in construction, food services, and truck transportation. Teenage birth rates are also high for school dropouts. The rate of school dropouts also strongly correlates with the crime rate in a neighborhood as well as the overall economic standing of the community. It is with this realization that it becomes apparent the true costs of school dropouts, reminding us of the old adage, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

The problem becomes more serious with the fact that remediation is almost an impossible task. Compulsory education does come with costs. Even with adequate resources for schooling, implementing compulsory education requires personnel, time and effort. The fact that I received a phone call on the year that my son was supposed to start schooling meant someone in the government was in fact paying attention. School dropouts do not happen overnight. Thus, compulsory education requires monitoring and keeping records.

Past grade school and across the mid teen years, as the child further develops his or her own decision making, compulsory education now has to deal directly with the student. At this stage, compulsory education not only requires schools to use "sticks" but also "carrots" to reengage students who may have the impulse to leave school without fully understanding the long lasting consequences of such action. 

To apply the above thoughts on the Philippine situation is very painful. First, peer-reviewed studies are required to find out why students stop attending school. The reasons maybe obvious but a careful study is still required. Poverty is expected to be the top reason. Child labor is widespread. Classrooms are overcrowded. The high pupil to teacher ratio prevents teachers from establishing a deeper one-on-one relationship with their students. The fact that public schools are not really free makes it difficult for poor parents to send their children to schools. 

To address the above problems, of course, there are costs. Providing free lunch to poor students, ensuring that public schools do not collect any fees (no exceptions), providing the poor with the necessary school supplies and learning materials, reducing the pupil to teacher ratio especially in schools where most students come from poor families - all of these measures require money. It is quite obvious that resources are not there for thirteen years of compulsory education. So we need to take baby steps, "first things first".  We should not overextend ourselves for this will only exacerbate the situation. Doing well in the early years of education will equip students with skills and interest to continue in their education. Resources in basic education can be focused on these early years.

The costs are actually very small compared to the costs of not taking these actions. School dropouts are correlated with crime rate, drug use, early pregnancy, and poor health. School dropouts lead to a less engaged citizenry. Democracy simply can not flourish in an uneducated society. The "straight path" cannot be achieved by simply removing the corrupt from the halls of power in the Philippine government. The "straight path" requires education for all, an education that equips each and every member of society. Thus, we end with the familiar saying: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

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