Dropout Prevention

Authors: Josh Austin, Tracy Carter, Alison O'Neil, and Lisa Sansone


Dropping out of high school is a serious problem that affects not only the individual student’s future, but also affects society at large. Students who dropout of high school are far more likely to be unemployed. In 2000, 56% of dropouts were unemployed, versus 16% of graduates (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007). The average income of dropouts lags significantly behind that of graduates. High school dropouts comprise 52% of welfare recipients, 85% of juvenile justice cases, and 82% of the prison population. The high school dropout rate has remained relatively stable for the past 30 years (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007). High dropout rates, especially in urban schools, and particularly among poor and minority youth, is a serious problem in U.S. education today.

History of the Dropout

High school as a social institution did not exist until the early 20th century. Prior to World War II, persons with or without a high school diploma fared equally well in society. However, as child labor waned, and more children attended school, high school began to take on the role of holding institution for adolescents. School attendance and a diploma became commonplace, and eventually expected. High school drop outs existed, but the issue of the drop out did not come into prominence until the early 1960s. By this time, society expected good citizens to have diplomas; dropouts did not have one.

Drop outs were categorized as young males, with character flaws and psychological issues. They were linked with unemployment, urban poverty, and juvenile delinquency. “American anxieties about adolescents have often been framed in terms of the dangerous behavior of men” (Dorn, 1993, p. 367). There was little consideration given to the large number of female dropouts or to possible economic trends that influenced poverty and unemployment.

According to Gill’s (1998) review of Sherman Dorn’s 1996 book, Creating the dropout: An institutional and social history of school failure, Dorn argues that the hysteria over dropout rates is unfounded and a social construct without a base. In fact, Dorn argues, the graduation rates have increased over the last century across all regions and demographics, especially rising between the 1970s and the 1990s. The worry over dropouts began after half a century of acceptance; in the 1960s, when rebellion was strongly feared, dropouts were seen as “deviant” (p. 1000). These students, according to the view, would poison the minds of the students still in school, which had become more of a social meeting ground in this era; by bringing in unwanted ideas, the social area would be tainted and society would ultimately collapse. Dorn also mentions studies in the 1970s that argued teachers and administrators were more likely to let students drop out than try to retain them in the schools, since losing the “trouble students” would make the entire school environment more manageable. This attitude, that simply being rid of a student can help a school, seems to continue, often unspoken, in schools today.

The issue of dropouts resurfaced during the 1980s and again, over twenty years later. “…Dropping out, with its many connotations, remains a common term to use in describing the failure of schools and their students” (Dorn, 1993, p. 372).

Causes of Student Dropouts

The most prevailing theme for the cause of high school students dropping out unanimously is student disinterest in school (Suh, et al., 2007). Disinterest or disengagement at school, however, is not the only factor for students dropping out of high school. The Dade County School District, in a study of the causes and solutions to the dropout epidemic in their own county, found through surveying their county’s dropouts that in most cases of students prematurely leaving school there were several social and personal factors involved in the decision. At times, the social factor of the student’s decision comes from feeling contentious towards their school (Suh, et. al, 2007).

According to four separate studies (Hammond, 2007; Romanik & Blazer, 1990; Suh, Suhyun; Suh, Jingyo, 2007; Thompson, 2003), students are at risk of dropping out when they have several (three or more) risk factors: teenage motherhood, other family members having dropped out (especially a sibling or parent), living in a single parent household, working more than twenty hours a week, fear of bullying/going to school, socio-economic status of the student’s school, level of social skills, learning disability when combined with socio-economic status of the school, high absenteeism, lack of basic academic skills, grade retention, prevalence of dropouts in the student’s neighborhood, moving often/changing schools, aggression, low expectations in school and home, no extracurricular activities, behavioral problems, lack of interest in school, limited English skills, adult responsibilities, substance abuse, problems with the law, dislike of reading, peer groups (who the student maintains friendships with), low occupational aspirations, low self-esteem, poor family dynamics, misconceptions about education, negative school environment, high stakes testing, supervision problems at home, unable to keep up with school work, poor grades, absenteeism, and low socio-economic status.

Often, teenage mothers who drop out of high school do so not understanding the programs in place to assist them to care for their child while finishing their high school education. Many live below the poverty line, giving greater risk factors to their own children of becoming dropouts themselves. Teenage mothers who do not successfully complete their high school education are often of a lower socio-economic back ground (Thompson, 2003, p. 4).

Temporary or Permanent Dropouts

Dropouts can be separated into two groups: temporary or permanent. Temporary dropouts are those students who leave school for a period of time, and then return, whereas permanent dropouts do not return. “Choices about work and school are highly interdependent for disadvantaged youth, and their life needs do not necessarily match those of more advantaged youth” (Entwisle, Alexander & Olson, 2004, p. 1182). Many factors influence students’ choice to leave school: family financial issues, parenthood, and the institution of high school itself. Adolescence is a transition period to adulthood; many students balance work and school, stretching out the time to earn a diploma or a General Education Development (GED) certificate.

Retention is the most significant predictor of dropping out (Entwisle, et al., p. 1198), and those who have been retained have a greater risk of permanently dropping out of school. The negative connotations of retention may be the greatest influence; “by dropping out, retained students can shed a punishing role and instead, by work or other means, acquire some of the status accorded to adults” (Entwisle, et al., p.1197). It is noteworthy that schools with high levels of low-income students also retain more students.

Estimating Dropout Rates

There is a wide spectrum of dropout rates; depending on the study, the rate is estimated anywhere from single digits to over 30%. This discrepancy is due to the fact that “dropout rate” has multiple definitions. The most commonly used are graduation ratio, cohort graduation measure, and the dropout pool. The graduation ratio determines the number of seventeen year olds at the beginning of the school year; versus the number of graduates at the end of the academic year. In 1985, this estimate put the dropout rate at 27%. The cohort graduation rate compares the number of students in Grade 9 to the number of graduates four years later. In 1985, this estimate was 30%. Another method, the dropout pool, reviews the proportion of people who are not enrolled in school and are not high school graduates. In 1985, these estimates were 2% of teens aged 14-15 years, 7 % of 16-17 year olds, and 14% of young adults aged 18-19 years (Kominski, 1990, p. 303).

Robert Kominski (1990), from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, suggests using a common methodology, the Yearly Dropout Rate. Kominski uses the definition of rate as the “speed at which an event occurs over a defined measure of time” (p. 304). By using the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, it would be possible to determine the yearly rate of dropouts. A dropout would be defined as someone who had been in school the prior year, was not enrolled in school now, and did not finish high school (p. 304). By using this data, it is possible to examine yearly rates from the 1960s to the present, and to get a true idea of trends and fluctuations in the rate. It is interesting to note that the yearly rate in 1968 was 5.3%, peaked at 6.6% in 1978, and then declined to 5% in 1985. All of these numbers are significantly different than the other methodologies used.

However, this method, like others, does not address the issues of students who are enrolled but do not attend school, or of temporary dropouts, students who leave school and return.

Dropout Demographics

Working for The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), Laird, Kienzl, DeBell, & Chapman, (2007) used United States census data to calculate dropout rates in America. The NCES uses two different definitions of dropout rates: the event dropout rate and the status dropout rate. According to the NCES, the event rate is more reliable since it only includes students who were enrolled in public schools during that year. The NCES notes that there is not a significant difference between male and female students nor between regions in the United States regarding the dropout rate, although the South has a dropout rate that is ten percent higher than the Midwest, which has the next highest dropout rate. The NCES report from 2006 does recognize that socioeconomic status and age are factors in dropout rates. In fact, the greater a student’s age over eighteen, the more likely a student is to dropout of school. The report also notes that Black Non-Hispanic students and Hispanic students have a higher dropout rate in relation to their populations within schools than other ethnic groups. This statistic is often acknowledged by researchers studying dropout rates, who consistently note that Black and Hispanic students have the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group; in fact, more research is available for this demographic than any other.

Gifted Students and Dropping Out

One specific demographic that is often ignored by those studying dropout rates is that of gifted students. According to Matthews (2006), this downplaying of gifted dropouts is due to social ideas about dropouts; specifically, dropouts are the ultimate underachievers in our society, making them the antithesis of overachieving gifted students. Because of this point of view, little research exists examining gifted dropouts. Those studies that do exist, according to Matthews, are often flawed. Matthews cites three major reasons for these flaws: multiple definitions for dropout, a lack of consensus as to which students should be classified as “gifted,” and the reliance on recent studies on a past, unreliable study. Matthews notes that the Marland Report of 1972 is the most cited resource in studies about gifted dropouts. This figures from this study, however, are now believed by researchers to have been misinterpreted, inflating the percentage nearly five times to the oft-cited 17.6%. Researchers also note that the conditions of the school studies, a school in 1950s Iowa, present a homogeneous group of students who were often expected to leave school before graduation to work. Because none of the studies proves reliable, Matthews formed his own study.

According to Matthews, the demographics within the gifted population for dropouts are consistent with the demographics of the dropout population as a whole. Furthermore, Matthews noted that students who leave high school to attend a community college before their expected graduation date are considered dropouts; as one would expect, these students are often gifted. Therefore, the dropout rate for gifted students would be inflated by students who left school to, in fact, pursue higher education. Another important finding from Matthews’ study is that, when researchers narrow the definition of the term “gifted,” the proportion of gifted students who dropped out also decreases; this point brings into question the role of definitions in considering dropout rates across demographics and in general.

School Characteristics

Another way of examining the dropout rate in high schools is to consider the characteristics of the school, rather than those of the student, that may influence drop out rates. Studies considering the interaction between the culture and structure of the high school and that of the students suggest a relationship between school structure and characteristics and students leaving the school (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007; Patterson, 2007; Zvoch, 2006).

Researchers studying high school dropout rates in Kentucky, using both quantitative and qualitative procedures, identified several school variables related to dropout rate (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007). The researchers studied the twenty high schools with the highest dropout rates in the state (HDOS) and compared a wide variety of school characteristics to the twenty high schools with the lowest dropout rates in the state (LDOS).

Academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores and attendance rates were the two variables exhibiting the strongest relationship to dropout rates in this study, showing the most differences between the two groups of schools. Students who exhibit academic difficulties and low attendance rates are more prone to drop out of school. Likewise, a strong positive correlation was found between suspension rate, poverty, drop out rates. The ethnic background of students was also related to drop out rates. The higher the drop out rate in a high school, the lower the percentage of White students. In fact, “a school with a majority of minority students is five times more likely to have weak promoting power than a majority White school” (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007, p. 333).

Researchers in this study noted that their data revealed a relationship between school climate and the physical characteristics of the school and dropout rates. In the schools with high drop out rates, personnel described their school climate and levels of family involvement as poor, compared to schools with low drop out rates. In the schools with low drop out rates the staff dressed more professionally and interacted with the students more often. The teachers in these schools used more instructional strategies that resulted in higher levels of student engagement. In the schools with low drop out rates the schools were “…cleaner, in better condition, and more orderly” (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007, p. 333).

In a study of one particular urban high school struggling with a high drop out rate, researchers uncovered cultural contradictions between the school structure and the students’ home cultures that contributed to students leaving school (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007). The study is a qualitative case study wherein the researchers “examine how the culture and structure of the high school influenced teachers’ instructional practices and resulted in contradictory beliefs about students and their families” (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007, p. 1). The researchers studied a large urban high school during the 2002-2003 school year. The high school was comprised of 39.7% Hispanic, 36.5% White, 17.6% African American, 4.4% Asian, and 1.9% Native American; 71.7% of the school’s students qualified for free and reduced price lunches. In contrast to the students, 85% of the staff was White, 6% Hispanic, 5% African American, 3% Native American, and 1% Asian (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007, p. 3).

The study’s authors interviewed focus groups of ninth and tenth grade students, parents/family members, and school staff. The students were divided into three study groups, which were chosen by the school as being at high risk for dropping out, average, or high achieving. Although the focus groups represented the entire student population, these groups that were selected by the faculty and staff were stratified by race. The high achieving group was all White, the at risk group was comprised entirely of Black and Latino students, and the average group represented a racial mix. The composition of the groups mirrored the teacher and staff attitudes in regards to the students. Teachers verbalized appreciation of the diversity in the student body, yet at the same time “staff members also saw their school’s diversity as problematic” (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007, p. 5). The authors uncovered widespread deficit thinking by the staff of the high school in regards to both the students and their families. Staff members “ascribed the school’s high dropout rate to Latino students’ familial culture and background, in particular the belief that parents of these students do not value education” (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007, p. 5). Staff also expressed negative view of other racial minority and low income students. Lack of motivation and not valuing education were common beliefs held by staff in regards to these students.

All three students groups shared their view of effective teachers as those who were caring. All groups characterized caring teachers as ones who “took the time to develop relationships with students and consistently communicated high expectations to them” ((Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007, p. 7). The students from all three groups shared the impression that teachers’ instructional methods were neither interactive nor engaging, and that teachers favored the high achieving group in terms of attention and time spent with students.

In conclusion, the researchers noted several school characteristics that were responsible for students leaving school. The high school graduated only 53.6% of the cohort that began as freshman that year. Contradictions existed “between educators’ beliefs about students and parents, between the school’s structure and instruction, and between students needs and instructional practices” (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007, p. 5).

Interaction between School and Individual Characteristics

For many students in the US today, the high school that they attend may be the determining factor in whether they graduate or drop out. Individual student risk factors and the school context need to be considered together in order to accurately determine dropout risk. Zvoch notes "schools' social context was generally associated with dropout distributions that became increasingly unfavorable to disadvantaged student groups as school poverty increased" (Zvoch, 2006, p. 110). As school poverty increases the relation between economic disadvantage and dropping out increases. In fact, in an affluent school the odds of an economically disadvantage child of dropping out are no greater relative to their economically advantage peers (Zvoch, 2006). As school poverty increases, so do the odds of special education students dropping out. Zvoch's study found that "in advantaged school contexts, special education students were less likely than their peers to drop out" (Zvoch, 2006, p. 107). Similarly, ethnic and language minority status was not related to dropping out once poverty, age, and achievement were taken into account. Especially important to note is that students with similar achievement profiles and dissimilar economic backgrounds drop out at much different rates as the school becomes increasingly disadvantaged (Zvoch, 2006).

The True Role of Ethnicity and Race in Dropping Out

Although researchers and the media often portray dropout rates in relation to ethnicity, research by Carpenter & Ramirez (2007) support the idea that ethnicity is not as much of a factor as commonly believed and that the research that links ethnicity to dropout rate is based more in numbers and statistics than in analysis. In the first of a two-part study, the researchers found that the “achievement gaps” within groups, which are related to dropout rates, are more significant than the gaps between groups. In fact, the second part of the research presents the major reasons for students across all ethnicities dropping out to be retention and suspension. These factors are related to the NCES report from 2006. Students who are continually suspended will likely be retained from grade to grade. Once these students fall too far above the expected age for their grade level, the likelihood of their dropping out soars. This study gives support for the statistic presented by the government, a step that the authors criticize other studies for skipping.

Other factors related to dropout rate were socioeconomic status and parental involvement. Carpenter and Ramirez also cite other research that states public schools, rural schools, larger schools, and schools with lower teacher quality are more likely to have students drop out; the problem, according to the authors, has only been compounded by high stakes testing and exit exams. The studies cited by these authors support the claim that a student dropping out has less to do with individual risk factors within the student and more to do with the characteristics of the school and of the student’s relationship with the school system.

Conclusion/Moral Implications

A need for more research about the manner in which school factors contribute to whether or not students remain in school is apparent. While educators have little or no control over individual student's risk factors or larger societal problems, school contexts and conditions that contribute to students' leaving school need to be thouroughly understood, and ways in which to decrease those school risk factors implemented. At this time "little empirical research exists on school factors that may be associated with dropping out, a few studies have reported that dropout rates appear to vary widely depending on school factors" (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2007, p. 326).

Similarly, if dropping out is to be understood fully, researchers must agree on one specific definition of dropping out. A large scale literature review is incredibly difficult because of all the different definitions used; creating real meaning from the data or solutions to dropping out is even more difficult. As Matthews (2006) presented, narrowing a definition leads to differing results. Using one solid, well-defined definition would make this process easier. However, creating a new dropout definition may call into question all previous study, creating the need to start over on research. Dropout prevention can only be discussed when these new definitions and risk factors are examined closely.

Dropping out of school is a complex problem, and there probably is no simple solution. However, discovering the risk factors that can be minimized and implementing measures to do so is in the best interests not only of the individual student, but of the community and society at large.

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