The refusal of students to go to school is nothing new. What makes it such a pressing issue in Japan and the United States today is the difference in lifetime earnings between dropouts and diploma holders.

Once students fall behind because of excessive absences, they’re likely to give up entirely and drop out. That’s why it behooves the education ministry to take steps to determine what measures can be taken to assure that the absence of 120,000 elementary and junior high school students for more than 30 days a year for reasons other than illness and finance will be seen in the future as an aberration.

The U.S. is facing a similar challenge. Despite an increase in the high-school graduation rate to 81 percent, the situation is not as solid as it appears. That’s because too many states keep two sets of books. One set uses an inflated graduation rate for federal reporting and a different one at home.

For example, just a few years ago California reported to Washington an official graduation rate of 83 percent, but posted an estimated 67 percent rate on its website. Mississippi reported 87 percent and 63 percent, respectively. The reasons for this accounting legerdemain are to avoid immediate embarrassment and eventual closure. As a result, the improvement in the overall high-school graduation rate is understandably viewed by many observers with skepticism.

In both the U.S. and Japan, the time is right to ask why students are not in class. One reason is that bullying, which exists at all levels, often leads to anxiety and depression among young people. In high school, however, the cause is more often the inability of students to see any connection between what they’re required to learn and their future plans.

That’s where high schools are to blame. In their obsession with college for all, career and technical education has not been accorded the same respect even though it can prepare students for jobs paying a solid middle-class income. If that were not enough of an incentive for change, about 90 percent of students who concentrate in vocational courses graduate on time. This compares with about 75 percent of students overall.

The task facing Japan and the U.S. is to decide when — and if — there is ever a proper time to begin tracking students. Singapore, whose students consistently rank near the top on tests of international competition, begins the process with its Primary School Leaving Examination and continues the sorting out throughout its entire educational system. In Germany, parts of Scandinavia and regions of Southeast Asia, students are given a choice as early as the 6th grade whether they want to pursue an academic or vocational high-school diploma. But differentiation in education in the U.S. at least is resisted because it is seen as elitist.

Trying to motivate students by pointing out that college graduates on average make $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates is misleading. The difference largely depends on the major of the college graduate. For example, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that beginning salaries for those with needed vocational skills in Houston, Texas, the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area, now exceed $100,000. Welders in Ohio make more than $100,000. Those salaries top what even the most highly paid new college graduates like petroleum engineers earn, and dwarf what early education majors make.

Salaries aside, there’s the pride and pleasure that working with one’s hands provides. If schools would recognize this reality, truancy and dropouts would plummet. But that is going to require rethinking our obsession with college for all.

Walt Gardner taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years. He writes the Reality Check blog.

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