I started teaching at the Women’s Correctional Facility because it seemed cool, and it appealed to my sense of adventure. Civilians were sorted into lines: four metal detectors on the way in, three on the way out. I couldn’t bring soft drinks or cell phones. When asked where I worked, I’d just say 26th & California and watch as people’s eyes would raise.

I met Mike in a GED-tutoring program a few months later. He was a former track star and aspiring educator. He’d always competed fiercely with his brother– and had always won. One night while he was sleeping, his brother shot him twice in the head. Mike was left with brain damage, cognitive delay, a speech impediment, and a spotty criminal record for substance abuse.

Patrick was 36 and just released from a 20-year sentence for pre-meditated murder. He’d been tried as an adult. In high school he was bullied severely, jumped and beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Left to bleed and die in the street, he was found by strangers, and hospitalized with a coma. The only thing that kept him alive was his lust for vengeance. He vowed that if he lived, he would kill the people who had done that to him. So he did.

They were the first high school dropouts I’d ever known.

Dropout prevention is important. Attrition from high school can lead to increased risk of criminal activity, including a greater likelihood of being arrested and convicted. It reduces lifetime earnings, increases risks of unemployment and underemployment, and is even linked to poorer physical health and reduced life expectancy (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).

In the nineteenth century, attrition was readily accepted as commonplace, an inevitable outcome of enrolling large amount of students en masse. In the early twentieth century child labor activists intervened, advocating for compulsory attendance laws because they believed school attendance would reduce child employment. Dropouts were often pathologized in early intervention efforts, so early programming focused on counseling and preparing individuals for the workforce.

In prior generations, having a pool of under-educated citizens was tolerated and reinforced in society. Individuals with little schooling provided an unskilled labor pool for the economy, which was primarily industrial and agrarian at the time. Since then workplace demands have evolved, often leaving unskilled and under-educated citizens behind.

Statistics & Policy Initiatives
Researchers and policymakers often disagree on the measures used to assess high school attrition, but data suggests that almost one-half of African-American and Latina/o students who enter ninth grade fail to graduate within four years. Additionally, ten percent of U.S. secondary schools produce one-half of the nation’s dropouts.

In the United States, male students in lower-income brackets, primarily in African-American, Latino, and/or Native American communities, are more likely to drop out. Graduation rates for these groups hover just at or barely above 50%, with White and Asian groups at 75% and 77%, respectively. The most dramatic racial dropout gaps are in the Northeast, where less than one-third of Native American, 36% of Hispanic, and 44% of Black students can be expected to graduate from school (Orfield, 2004, p.24). 

In recent history, policy initiatives have touted ambitious goals for reducing high school attrition. The Educate America Act of 1994 reported that by the year 2000, the high school graduation rate would increase to at least 90 percent. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act highlighted graduation rate accountability provisions as a new measurement tool. 

Ongoing education initiatives are often criticized for contributing to the rise in high school dropouts. Critics make the following claims:
There is no sufficient federal funding to aggressively address dropout factories.
High stakes testing, meant to provide accountability, actually works as a disincentive for low-scoring students.
3. Policy encourages schools to push out under-performing students so they can make adequate yearly progress and increase test scores.

Understanding Attrition
Students leave school for a number of reasons. Some seek employment because they are the primary bread-winners. Some seek opportunity and acknowledgment because they feel isolated and unwelcome in their current school climate. Some leave to take care of sick family members and to provide for young children. Some leave due to chronic absenteeism or the feeling that they will not score well on required assessments; they believe it is simply easier to earn their GED.

Dropout prevention programming is critical. There are generational effects for families, neighborhoods, and communities. Individuals who dropout are more likely to be divorced, and are more likely to be single parents of children who also drop out of school. In communities with high percentages of dropouts, there is a marked increase in the number of unmarried women, perhaps due to high rates of joblessness and incarceration among men in these communities.

Dropout Prevention
Researchers and policymakers have generally addressed the issue by “fixing” individual students through counseling and job-readiness programming.Organizations and activists have started challenging this approach, believing that the work should be done on the schools (the Dropout Factories) that graduate so few students from their entering class instead of focusing on those who were presumably forced out. Organizations like The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) are working to change the focus from a deficit-based to a strengths-based approached that values the contributions of all children.

We can work to reduce the number of high school dropouts by focusing on early intervention. We can provide support for elementary students whose academic performance, attendance records, and behavior patterns indicate that they may be at risk. We can create inclusive, safe learning environments that recognize the skills and abilities of all students. We can provide a wider range of school options with varying schedules so that teens who work full-time can successfully complete their schooling. We can create more engaging, relevant curriculum and ensure that educators are well-trained and well-suited for their school environments.

The National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) at Clemson University has done considerable research identifying the root causes of attrition from high school. NDPC also recommends these fifteen strategies.

Is this enough? What else can we do?  

To read more about compulsory education and compulsory attendance laws, click here.
To read more about South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, click here

To read more about special education, click here
To read more about how schools are funded, click here.  


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