“Who says I have to go to school?” “The law!” Compulsory Attendance


This is something else I wrote for a class.

We might think of compulsory attendance in schools as something that always happened, but for a long time, there was the understanding that some students will miss many classes for assorted reasons. Weather could be unreliable in many parts of the country, and many students would be expected to be to busy with chores to attend classes, especially if their parents were farmers. The first state to make attendance in schools mandatory was Massachusetts in 1852, when it required children between the ages of 9 and 14 to attend schools. This was based on the understanding that many children in that age group, if given the opportunity, would not be in school. (Christie) The laws became common in every state by the twentieth century, aided by child labor laws which required school-age children to get an education.

The age at which students are required to attend school (with graduation as the one available “out”) has increased. Recent laws had increased compulsory education, including the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on graduation rates. Supporters of compulsory education laws suggest that it’s necessary to help children achieve their potential, and ward off various side effects of uneducated teenagers being left to their own devices all day long (IE- teen pregnancy, drug use, crime). Critics argue that students who don’t want to be in school will be disruptive, and that making attendance compulsory has become a policy alternative to improving schools so that every student would want to go there.

Some parents refuse to allow their children to attend public school, preferring a private school, or form of homeschooling. In the United States, the primary method of dealing with this legally is through laws that give control over standards for those alternatives. There are some exceptions. In the 1972 case Wisconsin V. Yoder, the Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that Amish children did not need to have more than an eighth grade education, due to the precedence between their parents’ religious belief and practice over the state’s interest in educating children. As Robert Mawdley described it, “the court went on to conclude that secondary schooling would expose Amish children to attitudes and values that ran counter to their beliefs and would interfere with both the child’s religious development and his or her integration into the Amish lifestyle.”

Compulsory education has significant effects in the classroom and society. With the understanding that most students will attend the typical class, teachers are better able to build on previous lessons. It is widely accepted that school-age children should be learning, rather than participating in child labor.

It remains a controversial topic, and there are several sides to it. There are several arguments that children shouldn’t be mandated to go to school at all, that it violates the rights of parents and/ or children, imposes a structure on children, or reinforces authoritarian beliefs. There is another claim that the laws don’t go far enough, and that the alternatives to a public school education lead to inequality, and a lack of suitable control over the standards of education.

I did some student teaching in summer school as well. One point that was drilled into me was that these were the kids who wanted to be there, the 1 in 3 who cared enough to go to school in the summer. Each day was a two hour class, and because teachers have to accept students who are up to half an hour late, many trickled in about 25 minutes late. Participation was also pretty low, with some kids who were literally present, but not figuratively so.

I’m mostly in favor of the status quo, with compulsory public school education as the norm, with available alternatives that have to meet state standards. Where do you fall on this spectrum? Are there aspects of that law that you would prefer to see changed (IE- the age up to which students are required to go to school)? For teachers, what problems have you had with absenteeism? How has your experience as a teacher changed your opinion on the topic?

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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1 Response to “Who says I have to go to school?” “The law!” Compulsory Attendance

  1. We have too many laws on the books as it is. Government has no place in the matter of education.

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