Keeping Kids in School

Susan Black
December 1, 2002

Why do kids drop out of school? I've been asking that question for years. School officials and teachers, I've found, tend to blame high dropout rates on parents -- and, by extension, communities, especially those devastated by social problems such as poverty, drugs, and crime. As a high school principal told me, "If you want to know why some students drop out, look at their parents -- they pass their low aspirations on to their kids."

And the kids come in for their share of the blame. A middle school teacher pointed to a handful of students in his math class and said, "These kids will never make it to 12th grade. They're not motivated, never do their homework, and they're on my detention list almost every week."

But the parents and students I talked with view things differently. One mother said, "My boy quit school when he was 16 because there was no justice in his school. I saw the unfairness for myself. He got suspended for some minor things, but a boy who started a fire never got expelled."

A student who dropped out in 11th grade confided, "I started thinking about dropping out when I was in ninth grade because I failed two classes. The day my history teacher called me a 'loser with no future,' I left for good."

Dropouts or 'push outs'?

In their 1994 study, Will Jordan and James McPartland of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students described kids' decisions to drop out. Across all racial/ethnic and gender groups, the pattern was consistent: Most frequently students cited within-school factors (such as poor relationships with teachers); less frequently they cited out-of-school factors (such as needing a job).

Jordan and McPartland identified certain school practices, such as suspension and expulsion, as "push effects" that move kids closer to the school door. Students who were suspended and expelled, the researchers found, became convinced that teachers and administrators no longer wanted them in their school. Predictably, perhaps, these students became more disruptive, were chronically absent, and gave up trying to pass their courses. Just as predictably, many of them eventually dropped out.

Another factor pushing some kids out of school is high-stakes testing. Brian Jacobs of the University of Chicago's Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies recently determined that mandatory high school graduation exams increase the probability that low-achieving students will drop out. Students in states that use these mandatory tests are 25 percent more likely to drop out of high school than comparable peers in nontest states, Jacobs reported.

Sean F. Reardon and Claudia Galindo of Pennsylvania State University reported even stronger evidence in a paper prepared for the April 2002 meeting of the American Educational Research Association. In the two years between eighth and 10th grade, they found, "The odds of dropping out are 39 percent greater, on average, for students in schools with high-stakes test regimes than for those in schools without such tests."

But tests or no tests, schools themselves must bear much of the responsibility for dropouts. That's the message of a large-scale study of high school dropouts conducted by University of Michigan researchers Valerie Lee and David Burkam. Traditionally, they note, researchers have investigated three categories of risk factors:

* Social background, including race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family structure, and geographic residence

* Academic performance, including scholastic ability, test scores, and grade level retention

* Academic behaviors, including school engagement, grades, course failures, truancy, and discipline problems.

But, Lee and Burkam contend, these explanations "systematically ignore" the many ways high schools influence students to drop out. Their study, which examines 3,840 students in 190 urban and suburban high schools, asked: "Who should be responsible when a student drops out of high school?"

The school's responsibility

Lee and Burkam's research leaves no doubt that, to a great extent, schools are responsible. The researchers found that such factors as the school's size, academic curriculum, and social organization are related to students' decisions to stay in school or drop out. After accounting for many of the traditional risk factors, they found that schools with more than 1,500 students, a curriculum that lacks academic rigor for all students, and negative teacher-student relationships can actually "push students out."

Widespread acceptance of the notion that students and their families are largely responsible for dropouts "tends to let schools off the hook," the researchers concluded. But, they argue, "blaming the victim for the dropout problem" is a serious mistake that keeps educators from working on the causal factors that are under their control.

Lee and Burkam suggest organizing large high schools into smaller units and improving school culture to build trust and increase interpersonal contact between staff and students. Reiterating research findings on school size, they conclude that schools should be small, but not so small that they cannot provide a reasonable academic curriculum for all students.

And speaking of curriculum, Lee and Burkam recommend that instruction be based on a "constrained academic curriculum" that provides more challenging courses and fewer remedial courses. Overall, they note, schools with "academic press" -- persistent and continuous efforts to keep all students engaged in high-level learning -- have far fewer dropouts. Making courses easier to keep students in school doesn't work, they say; instead, requiring all students to take rigorous courses tends to benefit at-risk students as well as high achievers. When students who fall behind receive remediation and extra help to succeed in their academic courses, they are less likely to drop out.
In what they call their "most important finding," Lee and Burkam also discovered that students from poor, disadvantaged families and neighborhoods are likely to stay in school when they perceive their interactions with teachers and administrators as positive. Exit interviews with dropouts indicated that half decided to leave schools because they didn't get along with teachers and other students. Many said their teachers didn't care about them, weren't interested in whether they succeeded or failed in school, and weren't willing to provide extra help even when asked.

Teachers who push

Indeed, teachers often make students' bad school experiences worse. In their study of dropouts, Northwestern University researchers Stefanie DeLuca and James Rosenbaum found that students who were socially isolated -- especially those who were routinely subjected to peer threats and who lacked friends -- often became the brunt of "teacher disparagement."

Rather than counteracting student-to-student bullying, isolation, and threats, the researchers found, teachers tended to reinforce these behaviors. And teachers who derided and scorned isolated students further increased their susceptibility to peer threats, added to their alienation, and ultimately contributed to their decision to drop out.

The study found that social isolation occurred most frequently among low- track, low-scoring African-American and Latino male students of low socioeconomic status. In turn, these students displayed significantly more withdrawal from school. Teachers, the researchers wrote, act as "institutional representatives" who send signals to students about whether or not they belong in school. Teachers who focused all of their attention on students' problem behaviors played a part -- perhaps unwittingly -- in causing many to drop out.

Shameful stories of teacher disparagement happen every day, according to DeLuca and Rosenbaum. I know this to be true from my visits to schools. Recently I heard a middle school English teacher, her voice laden with sarcasm, chide certain students for being "lazy and worthless." And in a large city high school, I heard a science teacher tell a student who'd been hospitalized for three weeks, "Just because you had an accident, don't expect me to go out of my way to help you pass this course."

Reclaiming dropouts

Students who are the brunt of this kind of disparagement need to be rescued, not ridiculed, say DeLuca and Rosenbaum. In New York, one group that is coming to the rescue is the Coalition Campus Schools Project (CCSP), a collaboration that includes the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), the CES New York affiliate, and the New York City Board of Education. In a study of the coalition, Jacqueline Ancess and Suzanna Wichterle of Teachers College at Columbia University found that dropout rates declined sharply once two of the city's lowest performing schools were closed and the students were enrolled in newly reformed CCSP schools.

Student success in CCSP schools, Ancess and Wichterle discovered, depends on "making school completion integral to each school's purpose and design." Staff and students alike see graduation as a "significant rite of passage and an important gateway to the future," the researchers noted. They also found that administrators and teachers in CCSP schools viewed graduation as a marker of their own success, a reflection of their effectiveness in "helping students use their minds well."

Systematically shaping this kind of school mission and culture, the researchers found, leads to "holding power" -- the will and resourcefulness to keep students in school so they learn successfully and are promoted to graduation.

Five additional factors in CCSP schools greatly influenced students' success: (1) small school size, which supports more positive teacher-student relationships; (2) small class size, enabling teachers to provide a challenging curriculum for all students; (3) intellectual habits of mind that mark the school as an intellectual community; (4) portfolio assessments that allow students to demonstrate their learning in multiple and complex ways; and (5) staff members chosen for their commitment to the school's mission and beliefs about teaching and learning.

Ancess and Wichterle identified other characteristics of these schools as well, including:

* Trusting, personal bonds between students and faculty

* Faculty affiliation with the school's educational vision

* Alignment of curriculum, instruction, and graduation requirements that are linked to a common set of intellectual habits of mind

* Academic support to help students complete high school

* Dedication to preparing students for a future beyond high school

* Persistent attention to continuous improvement and reform.

Students at the redesigned Manhattan and Bronx schools credit caring and devoted teachers with their personal transformations. One student singled out his math-science teacher who, he said, "instilled a drive in me to do good and not settle for less." Another commented, "Teachers push you. They want you to graduate."

CCSP schools inform students that their "journey to graduation" will involve demonstrating mastery in many areas, including reading, writing, and research; inquiry and problem solving; and perfor- mance assessments based on reports, projects, and exhibitions. Keeping kids in school, Ancess and Wichterle conclude, should begin by expecting more from kids rather than less.