Compulsory education delineates the number of years that children are required, by law, to attend school. Laws vary among nations, with some nations offering no compulsory requirement at all. Children can be required to attend school because of their age (and in some regions, their gender), but compulsory attendance laws may exist as well. These attendance laws not only require that children of a certain age attend school, they also must attend for a certain number of days each academic year. In the United States, children are typically required to attend school starting at age 5 lasting until about age 17. In other countries, children may be required to attend school as early as age 4, but lasting up to age 10 only.

In the United States, compulsory education is traced back to philosophies that evolved during the Reformation. In 1524 Martin Luther proposed that mandatory school laws should be enacted so that Christians could learn to read the Bible on their own. Massachusetts passed a similar law in 1647 while still a British colony; and then in 1852, it was the first state to enact a compulsory education law.

Parents who refused this new requirement could be (and sometimes were) stripped of their parental rights. Their children were apprenticed by other families.

Among the 196 countries that exist in the world, education policy differs on a range of issues: the age when children must enter school, the age when children must leave school, whether education is a fundamental right, how education is funded, how resources should be allocated among schools, what to include in the curriculum, and what the process should be for training and hiring educators.

Across the globe the average age for entering school is 5.9 years old; the average age for leaving school is 13.7 years old. In places like the Ukraine, the United States, and the Netherlands, a student’s education is typically complete by age 17. In Laos, Bangladesh, and Madagascar, education is complete by age 10. *In some regions, students have the option to continue schooling even though it is not a requirement. There is no compulsory education in Bhutan, Cambodia, Tokelau, Solomon Islands, or Oman. In Kenya, primary education from age 6 to age 14 is compulsory, but secondary education is not.

The 2015-2016 Pearson report uses global data sets, paired with literacy and graduation rates across each country, to rank education systems throughout the world. There are separate standings for educational attainment and for cognitive skills development. Pearson uses these data sets to support its rankings: The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS).

In the 2015-2016 report, education systems are ranked as follows:

1. South Korea
2. Japan
3. Singapore
4. Hong Kong
5. Finland
6. United Kingdom
7. Canada
8. Netherlands
9. Ireland
10. Poland

If we can take anything from the wisdom of other countries (and I think we can, and we should), it’s important to consider a few key factors as we try to mold an education system in its likeness:

  • What’s the historical context that frames the country’s philosophy of education?
  • How does the country’s history of dominance or oppression factor into its creation of schools?
  • What is the curriculum meant to accomplish? To what ends is it successful?
  • What cultural, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs may impact school leadership or impact instruction?
  • What impact does diversity play on the skills attainment of members of underrepresented groups?

To read more about South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, click here
To read more about special education, click here
To read more about dropout prevention, click here.
To read more about how schools are funded, click here.  


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