from Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of School and What Can Be Done About It
by Russell W. Rumberger (2011, Harvard University Press).
Copyright © 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Copyright © 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
There has been a longstanding debate over the purposes and goals of high schools in the United States from their inception in the 19th century. The debate has concerned who should attend high schools—whether access and attendance should be universal or selective—and a related issue of what is studied—whether the curriculum should be common (the same for everyone) or differentiated based on the background, perceived ability, and likely destination of the students (p. 21).
The goals of public education are codified in graduation requirements. Just as states have the constitutional authority to provide public education, they also have the constitutional authority to determine the requirements for completing high school. The most common way to complete high school is by earning a high school diploma. To earn a diploma requires completing a specified number of credits in specified subject areas, similar to the system used in colleges to award degrees. In addition, some states and districts require students to pass a high school exit examination. States can also award equivalency credentials, typically by passing a state or national examination, or other credentials, such as certificates of completion (p. 28).
While the goals and graduation requirements represent the common aspects of high schools—what all students are supposed to learn—a more important issue that has confronted high schools from their inception is their differentiated aspects—what is different in the intended as well as the actual experiences of students within high schools. Students pursue different pathways to high school graduation, some by choice and some by mandate. These alternative pathways operate both within and between schools, and result in very different opportunities, experiences, and outcomes. Within-school differences are most commonly referred to as tracking, whereas between-school differences are most commonly referred to as segregation (p. 36).Back to Top
The issue of measuring dropout and graduation rates has generated considerable discussion and debate in the United States, particularly over the past decade, because of a series of reports that showed the country's dropout rate was unacceptably high (p. 55).
The debate over accurate dropout and graduation rates and how best to compute them was further complicated by federal and state systems that allowed varying methods for federal accountability purposes. This resulted in wide variations across states in reported rates, making it hard to compare one state to another (p. 58).
Trends in dropout and graduation rates paint two pictures: one based on long- term trends and one on short- term trends. Long- term trends show that high school graduation rates have improved dramatically over the past century. But short- term trends, over the past four decades, show a slight decline or at best a leveling in graduation rates, even in the face of declining dropout rates (p. 81).Back to Top
So what happens to high school dropouts in the labor market? The statistics are sobering. Both in the short-term, when dropouts first leave school, and in the long-term, over their entire working lives, dropouts are severely disadvantaged relative to students who complete high school (p. 88).
Dropouts are almost twice as likely to be poor—in 2009, 25 percent of high school dropouts had incomes below the poverty level compared to 14 percent for high school graduates with no college (p. 92).
The economic disadvantages of not completing high school have grown more sizeable over time as the availability of low-skilled jobs has declined. The median annual earnings of full-time, full-year dropouts were 15 percent less than high school completers in 1980, but increased to 21 percent by 2008 (p. 93).
Research shows a strong connection between dropping out and three types of childbearing patterns that have been shown to lead to adverse consequences for both children and their parents: childbearing during adolescence (teenage childbearing), unplanned childbearing, and nonmarital childbearing (pp. 101-102).
A study of mortality from major diseases found that the life expectancy of high school dropouts was nine years less than for persons who graduated from high school, with heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke the diseases that most contribute to those differences (p. 111).
Two types of civic engagement—political participation and civic participation—are crucial to a well-functioning society. Political participation is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy where all citizens are afforded the right to vote. Civic participation is critical to supporting ones community, including participating in the vast array of public religious and non-religious institutions that represent the social fabric of society. Dropouts are less likely to participate in either activity (p. 117).
Because dropouts are twice as likely to be poor as high school graduates, children of dropouts are also more likely to become poor adults (p. 121).Back to Top
One of the most important consequences of dropping out is its impact on the economy. As documented earlier, dropouts have higher rates of unemployment, work fewer hours when they are employed, and have lower earnings than high school graduates. As a result, they pay fewer taxes that support public spending. Several studies estimate that dropouts pay one-half to two-thirds of the taxes paid by high school graduates (p. 132).
In an analysis of historical trends in high school graduation, college access, and college completion rates, Nobel economist James Heckman attributes a substantial portion of the slowdown in college educated workers to a slowdown in the high school graduation rate in the U.S (p. 134).
Both Levin and his colleagues and Carroll and Erkut estimate the total costs to taxpayers of high school dropouts by adding the reduced tax revenues and increased public expenditures for crime, welfare, and health. Levin and his colleagues estimated that an "average" 20-year-old dropout generates $209,210 in economic losses over his or her working lifetime, with the losses ranging from $143,000 for Hispanic females to $268,500 for Black males. For the entire cohort of 709,000 20-year-old dropouts this amounts to a total loss of $148 billion (p. 139).Back to Top
To understand why students drop out, it is most useful to consider dropping out as a process that culminates in students quitting or finishing high school. Researchers have developed a number of models to explain the process of dropping out and the underlying factors that contribute to it (p. 145).
Student engagement figures prominently in the process of dropping out. In fact, in an early review of the research literature published in 1987, I suggested, "dropping out itself might be better viewed as a process of disengagement from school, perhaps for either academic or social reasons that culminates in the final act of leaving." (p. 151).Back to Top
Individual predictors of dropping out fall into four broad areas or domains: (1) educational performance, (2) behaviors, (3) attitudes, and (4) background. In keeping with a view of dropping out as a process, scholars have also identified at what point or when in the process of dropping out various factors matter. For instance, at what grade level or how many years prior to dropping out do various aspects of educational performance, behaviors, or attitudes predict whether students are likely to drop out of school? Knowing what and when various factors are most predictive can be used to better design interventions to target students in the right areas and at the right time to improve their chances of staying in school and graduating (p. 160).
Failing classes at any point in a student's high school career can lessen the chances of graduating...Course failures in middle school also predict high school graduation (p. 161).
The research literature finds that retention is a consistent predictor of whether students graduate (p. 162).
To graduate, students not only must enroll in school, but they must attend school as well. Yet some students have poor attendance, and such students are more likely to drop out.
To remain in school, students must devote their time and attention to their schoolwork and their school activities. They must also get along with their teachers and fellow students. But some students engage in a number of deviant behaviors in and out of school that increase their risk of dropping out. These deviant behaviors include misbehaving in school, delinquent behavior outside of school, drug and alcohol use, and sexual activity and teen childbearing. The research literature finds that engaging in any of these behaviors increases the risk of dropping out of school (p. 172).
The research literature generally finds that teenage parenthood, and particularly childbearing among adolescent females, is related to a series of negative socioeconomic consequences, including low educational attainment and earnings, and higher rates of poverty and welfare. For example, only 51 percent of teen mothers earned a high school diploma by age twenty- two, compared to 89 percent of young women who had no teen births (p. 175).
The majority of the studies in our review of the statistical research found that students living with both parents had lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates, compared to students in other family living arrangements (p. 188).
In contrast, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems are under the legal authority of the government, yet often face myriad problems that impede their educational performance and reduce their prospects for completing high school (p. 190).
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Although countless programs and strategies have been developed to improve dropout and graduation rates, they can be grouped into three basic approaches: targeted, comprehensive, and systemic. The three approaches differ in both their scope and in their focus, and they each have advantages and disadvantages (p. 208).
Whatever approach is adopted to address the dropout crisis, it is critical to know whether the specific program or strategy that is designed and implemented is effective. Unlike medicine, where research is used to develop new treatments and to evaluate their effectiveness, education has long been criticized because many programs and practices are not based on research, nor are they evaluated to know whether they are truly effective. This is beginning to change. Over the past decade, there has been an increasing awareness of the need to base educational reform efforts on rigorous, scientific evidence (p. 215).
Although there is widespread agreement that educational reform should be guided by scientific research evidence, what evidence counts as "scientifically based" is open to question and has led to inconsistent conclusions by the federal and state governments, independent organizations, and individual scholars about the effectiveness of educational interventions and reform strategies (p. 217).
This suggests that, in general, it is easier to design effective programs to keep students in school than it is to design effective programs to get them to complete high school, and harder still to design programs to get them to graduate from high school.
Dropout interventions are designed to improve dropout and graduation rates. And because virtually all dropouts leave school during high school and, to a lesser extent, during middle school, most dropout prevention programs focus on middle and high schools. But a number of early interventions that focus on improving student performance in elementary and even pre-school school have also been shown to significantly improve dropout and graduation rates (p. 228)
Evaluations of past reform efforts and the existing research literature on implementation provide a number of implications for developing more successful efforts in the future:
The growing awareness of the dropout crisis has spawned widespread efforts by the public and private sectors to address the problem at the national, state, and local levels. These efforts focus on four major activities:
Are Current Efforts Enough?
Judging by public awareness, private and public activities, and funding, an extraordinary national effort appears to be underway in the United States to address the country's dropout crisis. Yet, these efforts are unlikely to make a sizeable dent in the problem for three reasons:
Moving Beyond Current Efforts
1. Redefining High School Success
So, instead of defining success solely in terms of mastering a college preparatory curriculum, we should develop a broader measure of high school success, one that includes vocational and technical education as well as the arts and humanities (p. 271).
2. Changing Accountability Systems to Provide Incentives to Educate All Students
Because schools are accountable for improving the achievement of its current students, this provision provides incentives for schools to encourage transfers of the most challenging students to alternative schools or other comprehensive high schools.
Instead, schools should be provided incentives to successfully educate all the students who enter as ninth graders. One way to do this is include all students who spend at least one semester of their ninth grade in that schools' ninth grade cohort when calculating their graduation rate, regardless of whether the student remains in the school. That way, schools will have a greater incentive to insure that if students do transfer, they transfer to another school that is likely to improve their chances of graduating (pp. 272-273)
3. Building Capacity of the Educational System
Evaluations of past reform efforts by the federal government, states governments, and private organizations have consistently concluded that these reform efforts have largely failed because educational institutions lacked sufficient capacity to implement and sustain school reform…Reform efforts have largely utilized mandates and resources to force schools and staffs to change their practices over the short term rather than building their capacity to improve over the long run.
Unfortunately, current reform efforts largely follow the same formula: increasing standards, mandating reform strategies, and providing more funding to states and schools that adopt these measures. But without a clear and focused effort to improve the capacity at all levels of the educational system—the federal level, the state level, the local district and school level—these efforts will likely fail (p. 273)
4. Desegregating Schools
Schools in the U.S. are highly segregated by race and poverty because communities are segregated and most students still attend neighborhood schools. As a result, Black and Hispanic students are much more likely than White and Asian students to attend schools where the majority of other students are minority and poor. Both the racial and socioeconomic composition of schools affect achievement.
Yet the U.S. has largely retreated from active pursuit of policies to desegregate its public schools, resulting in a deepening segregation of black and Latino students by race and poverty. While some of the inequalities associated with segregated schools, such as teacher quality and fiscal resources, can be addressed without desegregating schools, segregated schools would still remain "inherently unequal" as the Supreme Court found in the Brown decision of 1954 (p. 274)
5. Strengthening Families and Communities
School-based approaches alone, even with the addition of targeted dropout interventions, are also unlikely to solve the dropout crisis without providing adequate support to families and communities. In particular, even widespread school reform that raised the persistently lowest-achieving schools to even average achievement levels will unlikely raise the graduation rate sufficiently and at best eliminate about one-third of the achievement gap differences between racial and socioeconomic groups. Therefore, to improve graduation rates and to close gaps in graduation will require interventions in two other arenas: families and communities (p. 274).Back to Top