One of the few developments worth applauding on the sorry American political scene is the renewed focus on education. It took a financial catastrophe to remind the nation of the cast-iron bond between economic performance and educational achievement. And for this, President Barack Obama deserves real praise.
On the local front, Massachusetts can be proud of its reputation as an educational pacesetter. At the moment, a bill is winding its way through Beacon Hill that could make substantial differences in the lives of students who — for a variety of reasons — are falling through the institutional cracks and thus start their working lives with little hope of bettering themselves.
Bill S. 185 would raise the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 17 in September 2013, then to 18 in September 2014. One of the key provisions of this measure would expand the tracking system that follows at-risk students so that they can be identified and helped in the primary grades, when there is still a chance of turning the kids around.
It is a bold and thoughtful plan, sponsored by State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain, who chairs the Senate's education committee.
The bill also creates a "Graduation Coach Initiative" for qualifying high schools and middle schools — although it does not provide any new funding for it. That program is modeled after one used in Georgia.
It furthermore tries to reduce suspensions and expulsions, which are known to increase odds of early dropouts, by requiring more reporting of those penalties to the state. A word of caution here: the sentiment is solid, but all concerned should be wary of too much centralization and too much new bureaucracy.
School districts would be required to provide alternative education services to students who are suspended for more than 10 days or expelled.
Also, schools would be required to conduct exit interviews with students and their parents before a dropout, to counsel on alternative education options.
Governor Deval Patrick has expressed support for the bill in concept, but has reservations about raising the dropout age. Cost is no doubt a reason.
In these lean economic times, the added costs incurred from additional school services and increased student enrollments can not be waved away.
The legislature should pass the bill, but push back the target dates in order to provide time to raise additional funding through the budget process.
The City of Boston is already on board with the general thinking of S. 185. The City Council unanimously passed a home-rule petition in September, sponsored by John Connolly and Tito Jackson, to raise the dropout age in Boston to 18.
But what Boston and Beacon Hill must keep in mind is that changing the structure of how we teach kids will not matter a whit if we do not also change what we teach and how we teach it.
The widely heralded talk of vocational education at the high-school level must be converted into action — fast. Keeping kids in schools where they are failing makes no sense unless we can provide them with alternatives where they can succeed.
This, of course, makes the strengthening of the state's community-college system all that more important. Massachusetts needs to recapture lost youths, and then provide them with a path that will lead to self-respect and self-sufficiency.