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School Dropouts - Extent of the Problem, Factors Associated with Early School Leaving, Dropout Prevention Programs and Their Effects

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Individuals who leave school prior to high school graduation can be defined as school dropouts. From the early 1960s into the twenty-first century, as universal secondary school attendance became the norm, such individuals were the subject of study by educators, educational researchers, and concerned policymakers in the United States. With some variation in local circumstances, they are of increasing concern around the world as the educational requirements for full participation in modern societies continue to increase.

Extent of the Problem

Dropout rates have been examined from several perspectives. Event dropout rates measure the proportion of students who drop out of school in a single year without completing a certain level of schooling. Status dropout rates measure the proportion of the entire population of a given age who have not completed a certain level of schooling and are not currently enrolled. Cohort dropout rates measure dropping out among a single group or cohort of students over a given period. High school completion rates measure the proportion of an entire population of a given age who have left high school and earned a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports annual event dropout rates that describe the proportion of young adults ages fifteen through twenty-four who dropped out during the school year prior to the data collection. Between 1972 and 2000 this annual event dropout rate ranged between 4 and 6.7 percent. This rate decreased from 1972 through 1987. From 1987 to 2000 there were year-to-year fluctuations, but the overall pattern was one of stable rates ranging from 4 to 5.7 percent.

Status dropout rates are reported by the NCES as the proportion of young adults ages sixteen through twenty-four not currently enrolled in school who have not completed a high school diploma or the equivalent. Between 1972 and 2000 the annual status dropout rate declined from 14.6 percent to 10.9 percent.

Cohort dropout rates are calculated for various cohorts studied as they make their way through secondary school. The most recent large-scale secondary school cohort is found in the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. That study examined the cohort dropout rates for the eighth-grade class of 1988 followed up at two-year intervals through 1994. For this national sample of U.S. secondary school students, the cohort dropout rate in the spring of 1992, when they were scheduled to complete high school, was 10.8 percent. The rate declined to 10.1 percent by August 1992 after some of the students completed high school in the summer. The rate declined further to 7.2 percent by August 1994, two years following their scheduled completion of high school.

High school completion rates reported by the NCES are the proportions of those aged eighteen to twenty-four not in high school who have earned a diploma or the equivalent. Between 1972 and 2000 this rate ranged from 82.8 percent to 86.5 percent.

Dropout rates differ by various demographic factors, including gender, race and ethnicity, immigration status, and geographic location. In the United States dropout rates are higher for males than for females. Hispanics have the highest dropout rates by far, followed by African Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans. For example, in 2000 the status dropout rate for Hispanics was 27.8 percent, while the corresponding rates for African Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans were 13.1 percent, 6.9 percent, and 3.8 percent, respectively. Individuals born outside the United States have a higher dropout rate than those born in the United States. There are also regional differences in the United States, with the South and West having higher dropout rates than the Northeast and Midwest. Students in urban areas are more likely to drop out of school than students in suburban areas.

Internationally, there is considerable variation in dropout rates, because different nations are in different stages of extending universal secondary education. Among developed countries the high school completion rates are generally as high as or higher than in the United States, though the nature of the secondary programs varies considerably. Rates in other countries lag behind those in developed countries, but secondary enrollments and graduation rates have been increasing worldwide. There are also differences in dropout rates associated with socioeconomic and demographic factors. One notable demographic difference concerns the dropout rates for males and females. Females are less likely to drop out in developed countries and in Latin American and the Caribbean, but females are more likely to drop out prior to high school completion in the rest of the world.

Factors Associated with Early School Leaving

In searching for the reasons that students drop out of school prior to graduation, researchers have focused on three different types of factors. The earliest line of work in this area examined the characteristics of students and their immediate circumstances. This work has been joined by research examining the role of school characteristics. Another set of investigations concerns the impact of broader factors outside of schools, including policies governing the overall educational system.

Student and family factors. In view of the pronounced associations between easily recognized student characteristics and dropout rates, it is not surprising that investigators have devoted attention to the potential impact of such characteristics. Among the student characteristics identified as contributing to dropping out have been gender, racial and ethnic minority status, low socioeconomic status, poor school performance, low self-esteem, delinquency, substance abuse, and pregnancy. In addition to these individual characteristics, research has also examined the impact of certain family characteristics, including single-parent families, non-English-speaking families, and families that are less involved in the educational process.

School factors. Noting differences in dropout rates among schools, researchers have investigated the characteristics of schools and their programs that appear to be associated with early school leaving. These investigations have considered the academic and social dimensions of schooling as well as the issue of the availability of schooling.

Schools in which students have limited opportunities for academic success appear to have higher dropout rates. One of the strongest correlates of early school leaving in studies of students is the lack of academic success. Students who more often get low grades, fail subjects, and are retained in grade are more likely to leave school prior to graduation. Students experiencing difficulty meeting the academic demands of the school tend to leave rather than continue in the face of the frustration of failing to achieve good grades. The lack of opportunities for success can be viewed as an imbalance between the academic demands of the school and the resources students have to meet those demands. The availability of such resources appears to be related to the structure and organization of schools. In 2000 Russell W. Rumberger and S. L. Thomas found that public, urban, and large schools and those with higher student–teacher ratios tended to have higher dropout rates.

The failure of students to find positive social relationships in schools and the lack of a climate of caring and support also appear to be related to increased rates of dropping out. Positive relationships between teachers and students and among students and a climate of shared purpose and concern have been cited as key elements in schools that hold students until graduation. In 1994 Nettie Legters and Edward L. McDill pointed to organizational features of schools conducive to positive social relations including small school size, teacher and student contacts focused on a limited number people within the school, and teachers who have been prepared to focus on the needs of students and their families and communities. In 2001 Robert Croninger and Valerie E. Lee found lower dropout rates in schools where students report receiving more support from teachers for their academic work and where teachers report that students receive more guidance about both school and personal matters.

In addition to issues of access to academic success and social acceptance within schools, in some contexts there is an issue of the availability of schooling at all. This is primarily an issue in areas of the world where secondary schooling is not widely available. Although this situation tends to be more prevalent in the developing world, there are areas within developed countries, such as sparsely populated or geographically isolated areas, where access to schooling is not readily available. Completing high school in such circumstances often takes students far from home and from family and community support and so makes dropping out more likely.

Outside factors. Factors outside of schools have also been considered for their impact on dropping out. Examinations of these outside factors typically concern the degree to which they are supportive of schooling or the degree to which schooling is perceived as relevant to the current or future lives of students. In both cases external factors can be the natural consequence of broader social forces or the result of deliberate educational policies.

Support for schooling in general or for the continued enrollment of students through graduation can vary from community to community and society to society. For example, in the United States the long-held view that schooling is essential for a democratic society was reinforced in the late twentieth century by the notion that schooling is essential to meeting the increasing technical requirements of the U.S. economy. These ideologies of support for schooling are reflected in specific policies, such as educational requirements for jobs, and in media campaigns emphasizing the importance of staying in school.

The relevance of schooling and school completion as perceived by students also has an impact on dropping out. When conditions outside of school indicate to students that school completion is important for their current and future success, students are more likely to remain in school. These conditions can be structured by indirect processes as when high school diplomas become so common that they lose their value and are replaced by university graduation as a mark of distinction. Such conditions can also be structured directly through policies such as those requiring students to remain in school to obtain a driver's license.

Dropout Prevention Programs and Their Effects

The major approaches to dropout prevention seek to use knowledge of the factors associated with dropping out to craft interventions to increase the chances that students will remain in school through high school graduation. The various prevention efforts fall into three major categories: school-based approaches, environmental approaches, and system-building approaches.

School-based approaches have included both programs and practices designed to enhance the prospects for student academic success and those designed to strengthen the positive social relationships and climate of support and concern students find in school. Approaches to the former have included improved diagnosis of student abilities and tailoring of instruction to individual students, altering evaluation processes to recognize student effort, restructuring school tasks to draw on a wider range of abilities, enhancing remediation programs to make use of more time for instruction during the school year and during the summer, and increasing the use of tutoring and technology to deliver instruction to students whose needs are not met by regular classroom instruction. Efforts to improve social relationships and create a shared climate of concern for students have included mentoring programs linking adults and students, house plans in large schools to create smaller environments in which a limited number of students and teachers work on the entire academic program, and the use of older students as peer mentors for younger students.

Environmental approaches have included strategies to address unsupportive outside conditions by developing new relationships between families and schools and the integration of educational and human services to address the social and economic problems that impede progress through school. Attempts to reduce the problem of the lack of relevance of school to the current and future lives of students have involved revised curricula that more clearly relate to real-world experiences, updated vocational education programs that integrate academic and vocational skills and make clear links to the world of work, multicultural curricula that include materials and role models from students' own ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and programs that make more salient the link between schooling and work.

System-building approaches include all those activities entailed in continuing to expand secondary education in those societies in which secondary schooling is not widely available. Included are things such as establishing schools closer to the local communities of students and enhancing the quality of the teaching force and the curriculum.

The evaluation evidence on the effectiveness of the various dropout prevention efforts is limited, with most programs subjected to little in the way of rigorous study. Attempts at evaluation are complicated by the long lead time between early interventions and on-time high school completion and by the complex and multifaceted approaches often attempted with students in secondary schools.


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BEDARD, KELLY. 2001. "Human Capital versus Signaling Models: University Access and High School Dropouts." Journal of Political Economy 109:749–775.

CATERALL, JAMES S. 1998. "Risk and Resilience in Student Transition to High Schools." American Journal of Education 106:302–333.

CRONINGER, ROBERT, and LEE, VALERIE E. 2001."Social Capital and Dropping out of High School: Benefits to At-Risk Students of Teachers' Support and Guidance." Teachers College Record 103:548–581.

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