Dropout Prevention: The Million-Dollar Question

December 1, 2011

Audience Member: So, let’s say you have a class full of 10th graders and all of them are in danger of dropping out of high school. They have discipline issues, are under-credited, disengaged, all of it. You have no cost restrictions – no amount of money is too much. There are no limitations – you can literally do anything you want. What would you do to keep these students in school and get them on the right track toward graduation?

This was the question posed to six students on a panel I was moderating at a dropout prevention summit in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. Four students were in high school and two in college. I thought it was a great question; a question to promote dreaming; to generate the ideal with the obvious understanding that it would have to be trimmed back into something more real, something with real-world restrictions. But just offering the chance to dream with “no holds barred” left me excited to hear what these young people would say.

Tear down the traditional school building and start over? Create programs that do X, Y, and Z? Change the time structure of the school day? Connect students to jobs? Make it more “fun”? Get rid of all the teachers (except for Mr./Ms./Mrs. (NAME HERE) who changed my life)? Scrap the boring curriculum and make it relevant to my life? Get an iPad in every student’s hands?

Nope. None of this.

Their answers were clear and consistent, and would cost next-to-nothing.

  1. “Help me access positive social networks”: Whether with peers, family members, community members, or supportive adults in the schools, the answers from the student panel were clear: they had access to more negative social networks than positive ones and this needs to change. They stated this explicitly and it highlights how we must understand student social networks as a vehicle for education and engagement and be proactive in supporting their development. This is little more than an understanding that relationships are basically the core of everything, good, bad or otherwise.
  2. “Help me tap into my motivation”: Schools and communities have not taken the time to understand what motivates our youth. We believe it’s just easier for us to come up with ideas we think should be motivating and then blame the youth when they don’t engage. Adults talk ad nauseum about how un-motivated “today’s youth” are and we have done so for every generation of “today’s youth” for as long as there have been “today’s youth”. We work desperately to try and instill motivation, to fill this void, while never accepting that it is not a void at all. I have met adults around the country who run fantastic programs for youth that no youth actually show up for. So, something’s wrong with the youth? What if we just asked about and explored personal motivation as a foundation for every student’s education? What if, with this answer in hand, we then co-created engagement opportunities with our youth that “tap into” their motivations?
  3. “Help me build a sense of positive personal identity”: School is compulsory; it’s an extension of the law; it’s enforced; it happens to students. (One student panelist even talked to me “off-line” about completely getting rid of compulsory education for this reason.) There is no inherent reason that education as a value or as core to personal identity should be expected from students. The reality is that many of our students are just there because they have to be. And yet, our system is built upon the premise that education is an innate value. What if we took a few moments every now and then and offered activities and reflections on history, language, math and science that were more personal, rather than purely curricular, in nature? What if we rooted education in who students actually are and help them develop a vision of who they want to become? What if every student could answer: What do you want your life to look like when you are 40, and how does education fit into that?

So, for the big question with no money restrictions, the prompt for these students to dream big about dropout prevention “no holds barred”, we get (1) relationships, (2) personal motivation, and (3) a sense of positive personal identity.

I think we may have over-thought the million-dollar question.

Anderson Williams is currently working on his Master of Business Administration at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. He received his B.A. from Wake Forest University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art.


This article originally appeared on Cascade Matters, the blog of Cascade Educational Consultants. It is reprinted here with permission.

Anderson Williams



So well put. Thanks for writing about this topic. I am convinced every time I hear input from students that education cannot simply be a medium for creating a repository for data in the heads of our students but a place where they can learn how to be a person and utilize that information to grow, think and help build a greater society for themselves, their peers and communities. Isn&;t that ultimately what we hope education will do for our kids anyway?