Dropping out of School
An important focus in education research is the occurrence of high school non-completion. The work of defining, measuring, and reporting on students who drop out of school permeates the research. Theorists and policy makers utilize varying methods of counting and reporting those students who do not complete their high school education. In addition, tracking families who opt for private school or change schools or districts and students who choose to complete requirements for a General Education Diploma further complicates the process of making accurate estimates regarding attrition.
The two prominent reporting agencies, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and the United States Bureau of the Census (Census), report on different aspects of the outcome performance. One focuses on high school completers, whereas the other focuses on non-enrolled and non-completing people who are aged 16 to 24. According to the Census, dropout estimates from 1967 to 2003 showed a decrease from 17% to 10%; however, NCES reported high school completion rates ranging between 65% to 75% for roughly the same time period (1967–2002) (Warren & Halpern-Manners, 2007). This phenomenon needs more uniform definition and measurement. The Interdivisional Task Force on School Dropout Prevention, created in response to the American Psychological Association's 1996 call for increased research and understanding into the educational outcome of dropping out, revealed that the majority of prior research did not focus on intervention and prevention programs (Doll & Hess, 2001). Much is known, however, about the individual characteristics and other factors that place students at-risk of dropping out of school.
Most research on the phenomenon of dropping out focuses on a deficit model, on what students are lacking. The personal characteristics that have been consistently identified as placing students at-risk for educational failure and subsequent dropout include: minority group status, low socioeconomic status/families receiving welfare, exceptionalities and disabilities, English as a second language, low test scores and grades, misbehavior/suspension, grade retention, over age for grade, absenteeism, multiple school moves, single parent homes, large urban schools, poor neighborhoods, low parental/mother education, and student emotional/behavior disorders (Now-icki, Duke, Sisney, Stricker, & Tyler, 2004; Suh, Suh, & Houston, 2007). Of the dropouts in 2005, 65% were over age for grade; 61% were minorities; 58% were male; 33% were from low-income families; and 17% were second generation or less immigrants (NCES, 2005). Researchers have increasingly moved away from deficit models of academic failure to more positively focused models such as examining environmental and instructional factors that facilitate students' resiliency (see Freeman, Leonard, & Lipari, 2007, for a review).
Inconsistent findings across dropout prevention programs highlight the problem of using deficit models, in that programs are only effective for some students, but no program has been able to improve the outcome for all at-risk students (Dynarski & Gleason, 2002). In light of the government-mandated move to increased academic accountability and performance standards on standardized tests (No Child Left Behind Act, 2002), research efforts have increasingly focused on the multi-level influences that contribute to students either being pushed out, dropping out, or persisting in school. The theoretical underpinnings of most of this work utilize Urie Bronfen-brenner's ecological systems theory as a starting point to identify obstacles and protective factors in students' environments (Cassidy & Bates, 2005; Gallagher, 2002).
According to Bronfenbrenner, changes within and between the microsystems (school, family), exosystem (neighborhood, extended family), and the macrosystem (culture, government) can influence an individual's development, as well as the person's choices in terms of staying in school. More specifically, such administrative issues as harsh discipline policies and grade retention have been shown to be related to students' decision to dropout of school (Cassidy & Bates, 2005; Stearns, Moller, Blau, & Potochnick, 2007). Furthermore researchers and theorists have highlighted that leaving school early is not a sudden occurrence, but a process that occurs over time and results from certain interactions between student, family, and school (Christenson & Thurlow, 2004). Theorists have also emphasized that some students may begin disengaging from school as early as elementary school (Finn, 1989); whereas the documented decrease in achievement motivation that occurs during the transition into middle school (Anderman, Maehr, & Midgley, 1999) further complicates students' progress to high school completion. Beyond the demographic predictors that place students at risk of dropping out, researchers have identified how certain psychosocial factors tend to co-occur.
Research evidence from multiple theoretical and methodological approaches supports the relational nature of students' motivation and academic achievements, including high school completion (Finn, 1989; Whelage, 1989). Qualitative evidence from both dropouts and school staff members (principals, teachers, counselors) identifies the psychological and social aspects of students' decisions to withdraw from school (Anderson, Kerr-Roubicek, & Rowling, 2006; Gallagher, 2002). Such variables as feelings of alienation, perceptions of teacher caring, feeling a sense of school belonging/community, academic valuing, academic identity, locus of control, future optimism, self-esteem, disengagement, and participation are some factors shown to be related to the outcome of dropping out (Anderson et al., 2006; Gallagher, 2002; Kemp, 2006; Nowicki et al., 2004; Osborne & Walker, 2006; Reschly & Christenson, 2006; Stearns et al., 2007; Su, Su, & Houston, 2007).
The demographic characteristic of minority group status alters how such psychological and social variables influence students' academic trajectories; this correlation has stimulated research on minority students' developmental processes. For example, Osborne and Walker found that minority students who had a high level of academic identification and subsequent high levels of academic success were more likely to withdraw from school than their Caucasian counterparts. Thus, other psychosocial variables such as stereotype threat (Steele, 1992), in which case the threat of confirming a negative stereotype negatively impacts minority students' academic performance, also play a role in students' reasons for not completing school, as well as their motivation in continuing to pursue positive academic goals. Likewise, students from low income families have been shown to greatly benefit from having an internal locus of control and higher levels of self esteem (Nowicki et al., 2004). Research has shown multiple determinants for dropping out of school and each student's trajectory may be different based on the student's personal and social circumstances. Once students have formally withdrawn from school, they face many challenges associated with the adult world of work and survival.
As emphasized in reports on Project Head Start, students identified as at-risk who receive early intervention seem to escape the negative life paths associated with dropping out of school. Some of the most noted consequences of being a high school drop out are lower economic status, higher rates of delinquency, greater reliance on government sponsored programs, higher rates of criminality (75% of inmates are high school dropouts), lost local and state tax revenues, four times higher unemployment rates, lower self-esteem (Edmonson & White, 1998), increased drug use (Dynarksi & Gleason, 2002), and higher incidence of mental health problems (Brewster & Bowen, 2004). Given the gravity of these negative life outcomes, the need for intervention and prevention programs is obvious.
Many dropout programs promote academic success, improved self-esteem, psychosocial skill development, mentoring, adult behavior management training, and increased student participation in school activities. Other program initiatives focus on creating more intimate environments and helping students to overcome personal, family, and social barriers (Cassidy & Bates, 2005; Dynarski & Gleason, 2002; Prevatt & Kelly, 2003). Overall, dropout prevention/intervention programs that take a multifaceted approach appear to be the most effective in helping at-risk students complete their high school education. According to Christenson and Thur-low, successful interventions typically first address students' personal-affective needs and then address their academic needs. They also stress supportive connections between the students and their families and the teachers and student peers.
Understanding both individual and environmental factors that cause students to drop out can help teachers break the negative processes that can lead to students disengaging from school and eventually withdrawing altogether. Across intervention programs, teachers who are perceived as creating caring, respectful, and relevant educational environments and experiences are the ones who tend to facilitate academic resiliency, giving students the chance at more adaptive life outcomes after high school graduation.
Anderman, E. M., Maehr, M. L., & Midgley, C. (1999). Declining motivation after the transition to middle school: Schools can make a difference. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 32, 131–147.
Anderson, S., Kerr-Roubicek, H., & Rowling, L. (2006). Staff voices: What helps students with high mental health support needs connect to school? Australian Journal of Guidance & Counseling, 16, 1–13.
Christenson, S., & Thurlow, M. L. (2004). School Dropouts: Prevention considerations, interventions, and challenges. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 36–39.
Doll, B., & Hess, R. S. (2001). Through a new lens: Contemporary psychological perspectives on school completion and dropping out of high school. School Psychology Quarterly, 16, 351–356.
Dynarski, M., & Gleason, P. (2002). How can we help? What we have learned from recent federal dropout prevention evaluations. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 7, 43–69.
Finn, J. D. (1989). Withdrawing from school. Review of Educational Research, 59, 117–142.
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Gallagher, C. J. (2002). Stories from the strays: What dropouts can teach us about school. American Secondary Education, 30, 36–60.
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Osborne, J. W., & Walker, C. (2006). Stereotype threat, identification with academics, and withdrawal from school: Why the most successful students of colour might be most likely to withdraw. Educational Psychology, 26, 563–577.
Stearns, E., Moller, S., Blau, J., & Potochnick, S. (2007). Staying back and dropping out: The relationship between grade retention and school dropout. Sociology of Education, 80, 210–240.
Steele, C. M. (1992). Race and the schooling of black Americans. Atlantic Monthly, 269, 68–78.
Suh, S., Suh, J., & Houston, I. (2007). Predictors of categorical at-risk high school dropouts. Journal of Counseling and Development, 85, 196–203.
Warren, J. R., & Halpern-Manners, A. (2007). Is the glass emptying or filling up? Reconciling divergent trends in high school completion and dropout. Educational Researcher, 36, 335–343.
Whelage, G. G. (1989). Dropping out: Can schools be expected to prevent it? In L. Weis, E. Farrar, & H. Petrie (Eds.), Dropouts from school. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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