Harvard Educational Review
  1. “Why We Drop Out”

    Understanding and Disrupting Student Pathways to Leaving School

    Deborah L. Feldman, Antony T. Smith, and Barbara L. Waxman

    New York. Teachers College Press, 2017. 160 pp. $33.95 (paperback)

    When A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, it named a disturbing conclusion: the United States was lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of education. The report yielded several recommendations, one of which was to strengthen state and local high school graduation standards. At a minimum, all students seeking a diploma would be required to take the following curriculum during high school: four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, and a half-year of computer science (National Commission on Excellence, 1983). A number of reports have since been drafted that explore the advantages and disadvantages of strengthening K–12 graduation requirements. While more comprehensive state high school graduation requirements would be advantageous to the college bound, it would leave students without strong academic capacities stranded (Roderick, 1993). 

    Following the publication of A Nation at Risk, US public schools began implementing measures to support the report’s recommendations. In 2018, improving the academic achievement levels of American students remains on the national educational policy agenda. The concern of many policy makers is that numerous US students are still not receiving the kind of education they need to meet the challenges of twenty-first-century life. This concern includes the number of secondary students (those in middle and high school) who leave school prematurely each year. For example, between October 2013 and October 2014, approximately 567,000 fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds left school without obtaining a high school credential; this figure accounted for 5.2 percent of the 10.9 million students enrolled in grades 10–12 (McFarland, Cui, & Stark, 2018). Dropping out of school impacts society on a collective level. Our nation’s K–12 students are the future leaders, workers, and citizens; if they do not possess the skills that enable them to be successful in life (e.g., reading, writing, and arithmetic proficiency), the economic, social, and personal well-being of society will decline (Roderick, 1993). In fact, education researchers have linked dropping out with negative outcomes; costs on society and incarceration are just two of the results. These economic and social conclusions are reasons the American citizenry should care about students who drop out of school. 

    In “Why We Drop Out”: Understanding and Disrupting Pathways to Leaving School, authors Deborah Feldman, Antony Smith, and Barbara Waxman explore why students leave school prematurely and what schools may have done and can do to divert them from pathways to dropping out. This text offers a novel perspective to a familiar problem: students across the United States who leave school too soon. Using student voices to examine predictors of school failure, the authors interviewed 53 young people in western Washington State who were between the ages of 16 and 22 and who had previously dropped out of school. The sample includes young people with racial, ethnic, and geographic differences as well as diverse interests and abilities and who represent dissimilar communities and family backgrounds. 

    In addition to being attentive to youth perspectives, this text explores the possibilities that exist in public schools to deter students from dropping out, a component generally missing from extant research. The authors note that dropping out of school is a process that does not occur overnight; it often starts in the elementary grades and can be attributed to many factors, including but not limited to inadequate parent and teacher engagement, poor academic performance, and family economics. This book will be valuable to current and future practitioners, campus and district leadership, policy makers, and researchers interested in education reform. Through the narratives and discussions, such stakeholders may better understand the dropping-out process and the explicit factors that can influence it. The narratives and discussions further suggest that students considering dropping out of school can be diverted from negative pathways. The authors offer insight on how campuses can move beyond traditional dropout identification approaches (early warning systems and truancy proceedings) to limit youths’ abandonment of school.

    In chapter 1, “Pathways to Dropping Out,” the authors offer background on the dropout problem in the US and its impact on society, thus beginning the text with reasons readers should care about this crisis. The chapter describes the common patterns of behavior the authors identified in the student interviews. The authors discovered that the participants in this study tended to follow common patterns of behavior related to dropping out of school. They outline this progression through a four-step process that includes: (1) Initial Disengagement, the state of mind that reflects disinterest toward learning or being in school; (2) Early Skipping, the sporadic skipping of individual classes; (3) Serious Truancy, students skipping one or more classes regularly; and (4) Dropping Out, students not attending school altogether. The authors offer evidence that contradicts the stereotype that students who leave school prematurely are delinquents and are unconcerned with learning. To the contrary, this four-step process enables readers to consider the despondency of youth as academic difficulties go unaddressed.

    In chapter 2, “Early School Years,” the authors describe the interviewees’ school experiences and begin tracing the dropout process as it begins in elementary school. One finding from the investigation was that the majority of the interviewees enjoyed elementary school and had positive learning experiences, largely due to nurturing and other supports received from teachers and school personnel. This was particularly relevant in cases where school staff worked with students to overcome early learning challenges. Callie, one of the interviewees, noted:
    Later in elementary school, I was learning more and faster, and I was getting more excited about middle school and high school and what I could do in the future, I started learning better math and better writing and better reading and started learning about science, and I was just so excited to learn in elementary school. (p. 21) 

    Callie’s comment, along with reflections from other respondents, describes a buoyant learning experience during the elementary years. 

    These interviews revealed an association between positive adult and peer relationships and student learning and achievement. While many of the interviewees offered reflections of positive experiences in elementary school, some revealed factors (e.g., academic challenges in literacy and math, anger issues) that impeded their ability to fully engage in the learning process. Despite the challenges, these students still felt supported by teachers and other school personnel. 

    In chapter 3, “Middle School Challenges,” the authors note how the transition from elementary to middle school can be challenging for youth as they move from the familiar, comfortable confines of elementary school to the larger, unfamiliar, and more complex institutional settings that typically characterize secondary education. By the end of their middle school years, many of the interviewees reported they no longer enjoyed school, were experiencing academic challenges, and had started to lose confidence in their ability to learn. The authors explore the academic challenges that started youth on a pathway toward dropping out. Some of the factors were individual (e.g., learning challenges in literacy and mathematics, an inability to engage in independent work, poor study skills), and others were institutional (e.g., large class sizes, lack of individual support from teachers, a one-size-fits-all instructional model). According to the authors, when they asked the youth why they did not seek help when they experienced academic challenges, many responded that they perceived their teachers to be unsupportive and feared being humiliated in front of their peers. The authors discuss unsupportive and impersonal learning environments, weak personal connections to teachers, lack of individual support, and disengaging instruction—all issues that can lead to early skipping behaviors and ultimately to dropping out of school.

    In chapter 4, “Navigating High School,” the authors note that the high school experience for many of the interviewees was a continuation of academic failure and disengagement from learning that started in the elementary and middle school years. They found that at the high school level, multiple learning factors became more prevalent. Students reported having insufficient skills that left them ill-equipped to meet new academic demands, particularly in literacy and mathematics. Add to this a perception that teachers viewed them as poor students and fixed negative mind-sets (a belief that a student does not possess the academic aptitude or ability to be successful in a subject area and cannot develop that aptitude) to the equation, and readers may begin to understand why youth would consider dropping out of school. By no means do the authors suggest that academic triggers are the sole reasons for a youth dropping out of school; other factors, such as difficult social transitions, bullying, and family/home conflicts, also contribute to this. Yolanda, an interviewee, recalled a social experience: “High school is a different ball game, you know. Sometimes you get jumped, actually beat up if you don’t do this thing or that thing that they [peers] ask you to. Sometimes kids get punched so bad they’re even scared to go back to school” (p. 63).

    In chapter 5, “Teen Family and Personal Issues,” the authors examine the nonacademic issues that can overwhelm students and generate “a serious pulling away from school” (p. 88). The teen, family, and personal issues are different from the nonacademic factors in that schools have little ability to impact them. For example, Jack, an interviewee, had to assume a caretaker role in his family. When his mother began drinking, Jack assumed responsibility for caring for her and his younger sibling. Issues such as substance use and abuse, mental health instability, poor social behaviors, trauma and loss, family dysfunction, and negative peer interaction/influence can significantly impede a student’s success in school. Interviewees revealed they had experienced one or more social issues in elementary, middle, and/or high school, which, complemented by academic challenges, led them to begin skipping classes and ultimately to dropping out of school. 

    In chapter 6, “Exiting School,” the authors ask the interviewees to reflect on their decisions to leave school. Respondents noted several “tipping points” that facilitated a disconnection to school and put them on a pathway to dropping out. The authors conclude that the reasons students drop out of school are multifaceted. There is a convergence of factors (academic and nonacademic) that decreases a student’s motivation to learn and impacts their decision to leave school. They suggest that schools consider designing and implementing dropout prevention efforts that would allow teachers and staff to intervene before a youth reaches a tipping point. For programs to be impactful, school personnel should be aware of common tipping points, the factors that, when combined, push students down the pathway toward dropping out. Youth in this study identified their tipping points as serious academic failure, expulsion and suspension, bullying, housing instability or homelessness, health issues, pregnancy, and gang membership. While these tipping points may not be universal to all areas across the United States, they are familiar reasons that can inform a youth’s decision to veer onto a pathway that leads them to dropping out of school. The authors suggest that school personnel be aware of tipping points in general so that they may intervene at an appropriate time and with the appropriate measures that could potentially change a youth’s trajectory. 

    In chapter 7, “Implications and Possibilities,” the authors offer responses to the themes that emerged from the interviews. While they do not offer a magic bullet for schools to address this issue, they do offer several principles for classrooms, schools, and districts to consider that may discourage and reverse school dropout:

    • Discover and understand the story behind problem behaviors. Considering a student’s story can help teachers to understand the cause(s) of poor academic performance and inform instructional methodologies, which, in turn, can encourage students toward an adjusted trajectory.
    • Build a caring community and fostering a sense of belonging. Developing a thoughtful community is instrumental in diminishing social dilemmas and creating an atmosphere for learning. Such behaviors could include fostering personal connections in the classroom, modeling and using supportive language, and offering opportunities for peer collaboration.
    • Institute instructional approaches that support and engage struggling students. Traditional instructional approaches (e.g., lecture, seatwork, chalk and talk, and rote memorization) increase difficulties for struggling students. Teachers may consider developing engaging curriculum and instruction using alternative methodologies, including creating opportunities for student choice, using supportive assignment and grading practices, and working proactively with struggling students.
    In conclusion, the authors use the narratives to provide evidence of ways schools can better nurture and support students as they face challenges on their education journeys. By exploring the narratives in this text, current and future practitioners, campus and district leadership, policy makers, and researchers interested in education reform can examine school dropout not as an issue that affects a single locale but as a problem that is impacting our nation. The good news is that Feldman, Smith, and Waxman offer viable solutions that schools and practitioners may consider to impede youth pathways to dropping out. The authors suggest several measures that may help youth remain in school, meet the strengthened graduation standards recommended in A Nation at Risk, and develop the reading, writing, and arithmetic skills necessary for twenty-first-century employment and productive citizenry. They recommend that practitioners
    • develop caring relationships with youth;
    • bolster a sense of belonging with youth;
    • create compelling curricula for youth;
    • allow for classroom collaboration among youth;
    • use ongoing assessments to inform instruction; and
    • empower students to take the next steps in their learning
    If practitioners consider these proposals, the number of students that drop out of school may decrease, which could, in turn, improve their economic and social outcomes (e.g., lessen dependence on public assistance and reduce incarceration). The future of our nation depends on all students being able to receive a high-quality education regardless of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and/or disability so that they may become the future leaders, innovators, and problem solvers. 

    I appreciate the authors’ inclusion of student voice, which offers the capacity to view youth dropout through a different lens. I also value their explicit recommendations for school and system improvement. So often in research practitioners get the “what to do” and not the “how to do it”; this text gives both. A further, and very welcome, addition would have been the authors’ consideration of the implications of youth dropout on US teacher preparation programs. How can teacher education faculty and curricula best prepare future elementary and secondary practitioners to become solutions to this dilemma? The authors leave readers with a choice, and I am optimistic after reading this text that our nation can transform from being one at risk to one that can and will heed the calls to disrupt the pathways to dropping out of school. 

    André S. Morgan

    McFarland, J., Cui, J., & Stark, P. (2018). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2014 (NCES 2018-117). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch

    National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for education reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    Roderick, M. (1993). The path to dropping out: Evidence for intervention. Westport, CT: Auburn House.
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