Study finds early U.S. compulsory schooling laws benefited minorities

Fri, 04/25/2014


George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher has found early U.S. compulsory schooling laws produced hidden gains in school attendance and educational attainment among minority students.

Emily Rauscher, an assistant professor of sociology, said results in her study could support calls for all states to require American students to attend school until they are 18.

"Based on these findings, if you raise the minimum level of schooling, you are by default lifting the bottom end, so that should increase equality," said Rauscher, whose study was published this month online in the American Educational Research Association's journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

In the study, Rauscher examined U.S. Census data on school attendance from 1850 to 1920, which includes the time period in which all U.S. states passed compulsory schooling laws requiring students to attend school up to a certain age. Massachusetts passed the first law in 1852, and Mississippi was the last in 1918. She included data for all youth ages 6 to 13 who had valid information about their father’s occupational status in order to investigate how effects of the compulsory laws varied by social background.

To investigate the effects of compulsory education on educational attainment, Rauscher relied on data from the 1940 census, which includes information about the highest grade level each person in the household completed. This was the first census to record educational attainment, and it was also enough years removed that the adults in each state had completed their schooling, but were still young at the time of the compulsory schooling laws.

Rauscher said past research on the history of compulsory schooling had concluded the laws had no effect.

"They found little to no effect of the early laws," she said.

However, Rauscher said those studies mostly measured the average effect of compulsory education laws and did not examine how reforms would bump up students who were previously least likely to attend school, such as students of immigrants, racial minorities and those of lower socio-economic status. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, poorer families likely relied on their children to produce income, so they would forgo sending them to school.

"They would be the ones who would most likely need the added push of the compulsory schooling laws," Rauscher said.

Her analysis found that the compulsory laws did weaken the relationship between social background and school attendance over time. The largest gains occurred among young men in non-Southern states, where the laws reduced class inequality in attendance by 25 percent and race gaps by 30 percent.

Rauscher said the social climate of the time period she studied likely contributed to finding the highest gain among young men in the Northern states. School segregation especially in Southern states was not outlawed until the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954, and she said male students likely had a higher incentive to attend school in the first half of the 20th century because there were fewer jobs available for women at the time.

Applying her results to the current context, Rauscher said today's U.S. education system most closely resembles schooling in the North during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"If we did extend the compulsory schooling law, it would be much more strongly enforced, so it probably would be more effective," Rauscher said. "This should help increase equality in educational attainment by race and class,"

President Barack Obama in 2012 urged all states to require students to attend school until age 18. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, compulsory schooling extends to age 18 in more than 20 states, but a few of those states also have exemptions allowing a student to stop attending school with a parent's permission, for example. The rest have a maximum age of 16 or 17.

Rauscher said her study is timely as the federal government and states seek ways to close the achievement gap, especially among minority male students who score lower on standardized tests than white students. Obama in February also unveiled his "My Brother's Keeper Initiative," aimed at helping minority male students become more successful.

School districts also grapple with reducing dropout rates as they face tougher state and federal standards.

"Anyone who is staying in school longer is at least learning something in those years, while dropouts are learning in other settings that are probably less structured and less valued by society," she said. "Everybody's learning, but I would think that if you want test score achievement, that's going to get boosted more by staying in school longer, as opposed to being on the street."

She said schools could boost vocational programs and job training to help students who are closer to 18 but may seek to enter the job market as opposed to college. Additionally, school districts could use compulsory education as a focal point to prepare elementary students.

"It might encourage teachers to invest more and see every student as a long-run student because the school is going to have them for the long run rather than be done with them at 16," Rauscher said. "It could encourage higher graduation rates, too. It should."

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