While some students leave high school because of academic challenges, most high school dropouts believe that they could have graduated had they persisted, according to the findings of The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Using data from focus groups and interviews with high school dropouts, the report seeks to determine why students drop out of high school and what schools could have done to help them stay in school. “Considering that many of these former students understood the importance of education in fulfilling their goals and many had passing grades and only a couple of years to go, why did they drop out?” it asks.
“The decision to drop out is complex and relates to the individual student and their family, school and community,” it concludes. “The decision is personal, reflects their unique life circumstances, and is part of a slow process of disengagement from school.” However, the report’s authors did find some commonality among respondents, as shown in the graph below. (Click on the graph to see a larger image)
Source: The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts
What Does the Typical Dropout Look Like?
Contrary to popular opinion, the typical dropout featured in the report did not resemble the slacker-type who sleeps in class. Instead, most of the individuals interviewed appeared to be hardworking students who could have graduated had they had received more support. “Despite career aspirations that require education beyond high school and a majority having grades of a C or better, circumstances in students’ lives and an inadequate response to those circumstances from the schools led to dropping out,” the report reads. It found that 66 percent of respondents would have worked harder if expectations were higher, and that 7 in 10 were confident they could have graduated from high school if they had stayed in school.
Among students who dropped out because they were failing in school, nearly half (45 percent) said that they started high school poorly prepared. Many of these students said that they fell behind in earlier grades and could not catch up. They also said that the additional supports that could have helped them were not available in their high schools.
Dr. Mel Riddile, principal of J. E. B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, told Education Daily that many students were promoted through early grades with minimal skills and poor preparation. He said they entered high school “in a cycle of failure,” then hit a rigorous academic curriculum they were “totally unprepared to tackle.”
Regardless of students’ reasons for dropping out, the report found that dropping out is “not a sudden act, but a gradual process of disengagement.” It cited attendance problems as a clear early sign that a student might drop out, and found that approximately 6 in 10 students surveyed reported missing class often in the year before dropping out. The report also found that the level of parental involvement in the lives of these young people was fairly low, with a majority of parents largely unaware of their child’s grades or that their child was about to leave school. However, the report did find that parents often became more involved when they learned that their child was on the verge of dropping out.
Hindsight Is 20-20
“In hindsight,” the report reads, “young people who dropped out of school almost universally expressed great remorse for having left school and expressed strong interest in re-entering school with students their age.” As adults, the overwhelming majority of poll participants (81 percent) said that graduating from high school was important to success in life. Three fourths said that they would stay in school if they could relive the experience. Nearly half of respondents said that not having a diploma makes it harder to find a good job, and “wished they had listened to those who warned them of problems associated with dropping out.”
Based on data from interviews with dropouts, the report’s authors offered several recommendations on how to improve students’ chances of staying in school.” In an effort to keep students more engaged, the report called for real-world learning and a closer connection between school and work. It also called for environments that provided more support for struggling students. It noted that 81 percent of participants wanted better teachers and 75 percent wanted smaller classes with more individualized instruction. In addition, schools should provide a wide range of supplemental services for struggling students, such as literacy programs, attendance monitoring, and school and peer counseling, among others.
The report also stressed the importance of strong relationships between a student and an adult in the school. According to the report, only 41 percent of respondents had someone in the school with whom they could talk about personal problems. Improved communication between parents and schools was also called for by the report. It recommended individualized graduation plans and early warning systems to keep parents informed about their child’s progress, noting that less than half of respondents said their school contacted their parents when they were absent or after they dropped out. In what may be one of its more controversial recommendations, the report called on states to reexamine their compulsory school age requirements and consider raising the age at which students can legally leave school, from 16 or 17 to 18. Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia require students to remain in school until age 18.
To more accurately understand the magnitude of the dropout problem, the report called for more accurate data from schools, districts, states, and federal departments and agencies. It praised the National Governors Association for its work in getting states to agree on a common definition for calculating graduation rates, but asked the federal government to review the Current Population Survey and other data it collects.
It also called for better incentives under No Child Left Behind to encourage schools to raise both test scores and graduation rates and to ensure there is a balance between the two. “If schools are only rewarded for raising test scores, the law could have the unintended effect of giving schools an incentive to ‘push out’ low-performing students whose test scores would bring down school averages,” it reads.
The report was written by Civic Enterprises, a private research firm, in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It includes findings from four focus groups and 467 interviews with ethnically and racially diverse students aged 16 to 25 who considered themselves high school dropouts. The individuals surveyed were located in 25 different locations throughout the United States with high dropout rates and included large cities, suburbs, and small towns.
The complete report is available at http://www.civicenterprises.net/pdfs/thesilentepidemic3-06.pdf.