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Bruno: Status Quo Bias in Action on Dropout Age



This is a guest commentary from middle school science teacher Paul Bruno, who tweets at @MrPABruno:

I for one was pleasantly surprised to hear President Obama endorse increasing the dropout age to 18 in his State of the Union address, since compulsory attendance laws both significantly improve students' lifetime earnings and relieve a number of other burdens to society. So I've been somewhat surprised at the objections to the proposal based on worries about unintended consequences: that, for example, compulsory attendance may financially burden poorer families that rely on a child's extra income or strain the instructional capacity of schools.


I agree that these are serious concerns, but think they're overstated in part because compulsory attendance laws are likely to accommodate them and in part because I think we're seeing an example of status quo bias in action.

One way to think about it is to imagine a scenario in which the status quo is compulsory schooling until the age of 18 and the President's proposal is to reduce the dropout age. In that situation I don't think we'd feel comfortable saying, "Well, yes, if we reduce the dropout age many of our already-disadvantaged students will enjoy considerably less professional success in their lives, but we think that's worth it to reduce the strain on our nation's high schools and compensate for our ragged safety net."

As a country we probably do need to strengthen our economic safety net and build capacity in our high schools, but I don't think those are burdens that should be borne on the backs of kids who should be in school. To some extent the trade-offs we're making seem more palatable than they should just because we happen to be used to them. - PB (@MrPABruno)


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There is some objectionable argumentation here: paragraph three of Mr. Bruno's four-paragraph commentary is a splendid example of arguing from a false premise, which always, logically speaking, proves nothing; the last sentence by contrast ignores very real (rather than imagined) conversion costs; and the penultimate sentence assumes that the state knows better than the teen where he or she should be. In fact, often the state will be correct in this last-mentioned case; but state compulsion always restricts human freedom, and if there is even a single case where the state is wrong and the teen right about where that teen should be, then the state has arguably become oppressive in restricting its citizens' inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

I certainly didn't mean to ignore conversion costs. In fact, I thought I was pretty explicit about expressing that people are worried about those costs more than they should be because they've forgotten that we're *supposed* to be paying the costs of educating kids. (I realize you may not accept that premise, but I think most of the people objecting to Obama's proposal normally would.)

As for the state knowing better than the kid, I'm not just assuming that, I think it's demonstrated pretty clearly by the linked research. And while I understand that you can make a coherent and elegant-sounding libertarian argument that implies that making a kid stay in school means we live under an "oppressive" government, I think that's the kind of argument we should (and usually do) reject for presenting us with implausible conclusions.

If you are right, that is an argument against compulsory education of any kind, virtually all government, and arguably parental authority (which can be pretty "oppressive", too). I think it's much more plausible to just accept that sometimes it's OK to make kids do things they'd rather not do in the service of their long-term interests, even if our knowledge of the future is imperfect.

Hope you heard Russ Rumberger talk about this on NPR today-- he pointed about that it's not always the case that this reduces dropout at all, even though it might raise grad rates. As he's written and stated, this is a simplistic solution to a much more complicated problem -but hey, Obama's education plans are full of those. Dump Duncan and get a real thinker on board - one who understands the dynamics of poverty and recognizes that schools aren't businesses and education isn't a market.

Only read this summary.


I don't disagree with Rumberger, and it's not obvious he disagrees with me. (Or, more humbly, Obama.) As he says, "It's an important thing to do in the right direction", even if it's not a silver bullet.

Also, my understanding of the research is that at least some of the economic benefits accrue to students even if they just drop out later (before graduating).

I think the issue is "opportunity costs." How much time and effort are we going to invest in coercion and mandates, and how much are we going to invest in teamwork?

I think opportunity costs are definitely a more valid sort of concern. That said, though, it's not obvious to me that some states raising their dropout age by a little bit actually precludes other, more effective interventions. And since I figure that raising the dropout age is going to have to be part of a package of policies to keep kids enrolled, I'm not even sure we should think of it in terms of opportunity costs rather than it just being not-as-big-a-step as we would like in the right direction.

If the mandate is part of a package of policies to keep kids enrolled, then you are right. If it is a part of a mindset where reformers take a simplistic view of the evidence and the problem and double down on the top down mentality of this administration, that's different. Part of the problem with reformers' long history of silver bullets is that they don't know the long history of silver bullets and how they worsened education's culture of compliance. Many times, they don't even know that their quick fixes are just more expensive versions of the old quick fixes.

When President Obama had the nation watching, he could have explained how he would move away of the social engineering mentality of his own policies, but instead he also threw bones to the social engineering people in his coalition, and tried to sound tough. In doing so, he riled the Repubs, which also has a political advantage.

That's politics. But, it is unclear whether we can afford the opportunity costs of using education policy to first batter enemies for political gain, and then have the time and resources to help kids.

I think John may be onto something. Instead of mandates and coercion, maybe we can look at national success stories that create a supportive environment where the kids are not merely going through the motions, rather empowering them to learn and grow, becoming successful contributing members of society. This is not a quick fix or a silver bullet, but, nonetheless has been done in smaller scales and can be done going forward.

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