Colloquially, the term school dropout refers to a young person who has not completed high school. Linguistically, the choice of the word dropout places the responsibility and onus of leaving school solely on the individual. It obscures the pathways by which students ultimately “choose” to leave school, and the structures that lead to dropping out remain blameless. School dropout reflects not on the structures of the school the youth attended, on his or her schooling experiences, nor on the student’s worlds and realities outside of school.
I. What is a School Dropout?
II. The Current Landscape of Graduation
III. Historical Controversies of School Dropout
A. The Muddled Roots of the School Dropout
IV. Contemporary Conflicts in School Dropout
A. Causes of School Dropout Individual-Level Characteristics
B. Family Characteristics
C. Neighborhood and Community Characteristics
D. School Characteristics
E. School Policies
F. The Controversy over Data Reporting
What is a School Dropout?
School dropout is a term that refers to a young person who does not graduate from school with a traditional diploma. These youth leave school by choice or by force or are pushed out due to “rationalized policies and practices of exclusion that organize” public high schools (Fine 1991, 6). In any event, the ultimate result is the same: a young person does not finish high school. Historic educational policies and practices mask the phenomenon of school dropout such that it rears itself as an outlier: a rare dysfunction of an individual failing within a system, and, like all social outcomes resulting from structural preclusion, it carries a detrimental blame-the-victim ideology. In the context of education, this ideology presents young people who drop out as failing to measure up to academic standards and their subsequent bleak social status and life outcomes as a natural consequence of education’s ethos of equal opportunity for all.
Given that the graduation rate crisis disproportionately plagues students of color and low-income and special education students; recent immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, and queer/questioning youth; students with disabilities; homeless youth; youth caught in foster care; and youth caught in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, school dropout has a disparate impact, affecting youth who are already lacking in resources, opportunities, and voice.
A miseducation, however we name its end results, has substantial costs. For each youth and community disenfranchised by its school system, there are staggering economic and social impacts, heavy consequences for criminal justice, costs to civic and political participation, and grave implications for health. Dropouts are more likely to receive public assistance, be unemployed, live in poverty, end up in prison and on death row, die earlier, and suffer from a wide range of chronic and acute diseases and health problems. On average, dropouts earn $9,200 less per year than high school graduates and $1 million less over their lifetime than do college graduates. Beyond dropping out, children forced out of the school system are more likely to engage in conduct harmful to the safety of themselves, their families, and communities.
The Current Landscape of Graduation
Nationally, 68 percent of all students graduate from high school over the traditional four-year period; yet ethnic disparities in these graduation rates are striking. While 76.8 percent and 74.9 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders and whites, respectively, graduate from high school, Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos all have graduation rates that hover around 50 percent. In some cases, Asian refugees—particularly Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Hmong—and Pacific Islander students graduate at rates similarly as bleak. Immigration and socioeconomic status are important contextual variables in the success of immigrant students. On average, boys graduate at a rate 8 percent lower than girls, and graduation rates for youth attending high-poverty, racially segregated, urban schools fall between 15 and 18 percent behind their peers.
The data are similar for the special needs population, where only 32 percent of classified students with disabilities graduate from high school. Low-income children and children of color are overrepresented in special education (including being labeled as having emotional or behavior problems), school disciplinary actions, and in the juvenile and criminal justice systems—all of which correlate to school dropout. Compounding these statistics is the fact that children from low-income families are twice as likely to drop out of school as children from middle-income families and are six times more likely to drop out than children from high-income households. Ninth grade is thought to be the most critical year in influencing school dropout. A silenced history exemplifies this trend: between 1970 and 2000, the rate at which students disappeared from school between 9th and 10th grade tripled. And that does not include the leakage from 8th to 9th grade.
Data this staggering have inherent antecedents, leaving the current graduation rate crisis to illuminate a historical genesis of an institution that systematically fails entire groups of youth.
Historical Controversies of School Dropout
In closely examining the history of schooling, it becomes readily apparent that school dropout is a dialectic: it is both a deliberate and an unintended consequence of a system structured to maintain the status quo. This becomes evident through the ways by which schools ensure the development, success, and privilege of the white, dominant classes at the expense of those on the margins. The process of schooling is a means to assimilate and acculturate on one hand and to provide liberation, freedom, and educational, social, and economic equity on the other. Deeply contested and holding these two antithetical meanings, school dropout can no longer remain invisible. It has seeped through the cracks, appearing in the staggeringly low graduation rates and in real dollar costs to the criminal justice and health care systems at the expense of the educationally disenfranchised. The facade of educational opportunity and the influence of differing ideologies seem to be the interface between these two conflicting forces.
The Muddled Roots of the School Dropout
Several educational practices throughout the history of schooling have been discussed in relation to school dropout. Academic tracking, a practice that has been around since the post–Civil War era, has always had the greatest percentage of low-income students and students of color occupying the lower academic tracks. These students are labeled and tracked into a marginal future, without the personal growth of one’s own soul, aspirations, and spirit. With limited occupational and economic opportunity, being placed in a low academic track has always been a practice that serves as a precursor to school dropout.
One of the biggest misconceptions about young people who drop out is that they have no desire and motivation to learn, place little value on an education and learning, and are not interested in school. As it turns out, and as is detailed in the following section, schools often prevent young people from enacting their desire and motivation for learning and success. In fact, history is pervasive with examples of social movements for education, acts that can only be explained by both individual and a collective’s desire and motivation for schooling.
Underfunding, chronic overcrowding, and poor schooling conditions are also historic educational practices that contribute to school dropout. Schools and districts that serve large immigrant populations, those of low income, and communities of color have been underfunded, overcrowded, and not well maintained. Subsequently, the quality of education achievable in these conditions pales in comparison to the educational opportunities and access to resources of their more privileged and white counterparts. Deliberate underdevelopment and a decrepit physical environment significantly shape educational limitations. For example, it has often been reported that overcrowding schools was a way to get young people to drop out. This was achieved through the practice of double-shift schooling, in which schools were filled beyond overcapacity to the extent that they needed to run several shifts of students throughout one single day. As a result, class time and total hours spent in school for each pupil decreased, and the time spent out of school increased. This practice, in essence, manufactured dropouts.
Contemporary Conflicts in School Dropout
School dropout is the end stage in a cumulative and dynamic process of educational disengagement and dispossession. The controversy and conflict surrounding who is to blame for dropout—the individual or the school system—are embedded into each category and represented by the range and scope of the data. The research reflects a diverse array of ideological and theoretical positions. Themes of alienation, lack of school engagement, and the nature of the school setting and culture that emerge from the literature are presented.
Causes of School Dropout Individual-Level Characteristics
Individual attributes associated with school dropout include feelings of alienation, disliking or feeling disconnected from school, decreased levels of school participation, and low educational or occupational self-expectations. Diminished academic aspirations may reflect the changing labor market and economic forces operating at higher levels of social organization. Additionally, when students feel that the locus of control for their success resides outside of themselves, they report feeling less academically inclined.
Compared to their counterparts who complete school, dropouts are less socially conforming; more likely to challenge openly their perceived injustice of the social system; less accepting of parental, school, social, and legal authority; more autonomous; more socially isolated; and less involved in their communities. For some young people, dropping out may be a form of resistance or critique of the educational system. And the effect of self-esteem on school dropout is contested, with some research showing an association and some not.
Behaviors associated with dropout include disruptive conduct; truancy; absenteeism; lateness; substance use; pregnancy and parenting; mental, emotional, psychological, or behavioral difficulties; and low participation in extracurricular activities. These behaviors may be influenced by differing school environments, again pointing to the role that inequitable schools play in shaping the production of school dropout.
The foremost cause of school dropout for adolescent women is teenage pregnancy, accounting for between 30 and 40 percent of the young women who leave school, although alternative evidence demonstrates that often young women stop attending school and then get pregnant. Adolescent men are also affected by teen pregnancy, as they may drop out to earn money to support a child. Compared to school completers, dropouts are more likely to be substance abusers, and to have started substance abuse early; more likely to be involved in the sale of drugs; and more likely to have friends engaging in behavior deemed to be socially deviant. Mental illness and emotional disturbance also account for a significant percentage of high school dropouts—reports state that between 48 and 55 percent of young people with mental and emotional troubles fail to graduate high school.
Individual school experiences greatly impact the likelihood of graduation. Students held back in school are more than 11 times as likely to leave school as their peers, and several studies identify grade retention (being held back a grade) as the most significant predictor of school dropout. Poor academic achievement, low self-expectations, low grades, lower test scores, and course failure all contribute to school dropout. Here, too, these individual factors must be viewed as manifestations of accumulating poor educational experiences. In fact, 45 percent of students report starting high school very underprepared by their earlier schooling.
Economic constraints also influence dropout. Surveys of dropouts show that having to get a job, conflicts between work and school, and having to support a family are important reasons for leaving school. However, the overwhelming majority of all dropouts report that education and graduating are important to success in life. Data indicate the high value that dropouts place on education and their strong desire for education, despite rhetoric on dropouts that argue the opposite.
Family characteristics associated with dropping out are low levels of family support, involvement, and expectations for education achievement; low parental education attainment; single-parent homes; parenting style; few study aids available at home; less opportunity for nonschool learning; financial problems; and low socioeconomic status. Low expectations for a child’s academic success by adults have been shown to increase a child’s likelihood of dropping out fivefold.
Residential or school mobility are also considerably linked to school dropout. Importantly, what often appears to be lack of parental involvement in education is actual life constraints of living in poverty, having to work more than one job, employment where parents cannot take time off of work, language barriers between the family and school personnel, or the symbolic representation of schools as unwelcoming institutions for parents who were not successful in schools themselves.
Many adolescents, especially young women, carry the burden of caring for their family, forcing them to leave high school due to social or health needs of their loved ones. Compared to school completers, dropouts are more likely to translate for family members, help to find health care for their family, and care for the elderly and children in their families. Young men are often forced to economically sustain their families. Family stress, parental substance abuse, physical or sexual abuse of children, lack of health insurance, family health problems, having to care for a family member, or the death of a loved one can contribute to the decision (or need) to drop out.
Neighborhood and Community Characteristics
Communities with high levels of crime, violence, drug-related crime, and arson have higher rates of school dropout than communities with fewer of these problems. Some studies indicate that communal social support promotes school engagement and improves chances for school graduation among racial and ethnic minority students. Similarly, cultural norms of schools and cultural and linguistic tensions between the home and community (and often country) from which students come contribute to educational disenfranchisement, leading to school dropout.
Attributes of schools and school systems significantly influence dropout rates. Poverty again plays a central role, with a school’s mean socioeconomic status being the most significant independent influence on graduation rates. In addition, higher levels of segregation, more students of color, more students enrolled in special education, and location in central cities or larger districts are also associated with lower graduation rates. It is neither an accidental correlation nor coincidence that race and ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and level of urbanization are implicated in higher rates of school dropout.
School climate is a central component of school engagement and, therefore, school completion. Punitive school policies (standardized testing, changing academic standards without supports, tracking, unfair and stringent discipline policies, frequent use of suspensions) all affect academic engagement and success. When social support and positive relationships with adults in the school are diminished, so is a young person’s connectedness to school. And school engagement and connectedness are two widely supported causes of staying in school.
High-stakes testing, a practice whereby student advancement is determined primarily by tests, also influences dropout rates. Comparing states that employ high-stakes testing to those that do not shows that states using such tests hold students back at much higher rates than states that do not.
More recent studies publish findings of “school pushout,” in which school dropouts are forced out of school through a variety of policies and practices, like policing, discipline, and educational-tracking measures. School pushout is a concept that reframes the choice to leave school as a reflection of the larger educational systems, structures, and policies that have failed youth and that often ultimately force young people out of schools. Stemming from this phenomenon is the associated school-to-prison pipeline, a term that refers to policies and practices that ensure that when young people misbehave in school, they are turned over to the police and juvenile justice system.
School safety and discipline policies appear to have a strong effect on dropout rates. Student perceptions of unfair discipline, of low teacher interest in students, and of lack of attachment to an adult in the school all predict dropout. School disciplinary contact is among the strongest predictors of school dropout. Surveys of dropouts show that being suspended often and getting expelled contribute to the decision to drop out. Propensity for being a target of school discipline actions (number of office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions) is overwhelmingly racialized: low-income children, children of color, those in special education, and those labeled as emotionally disturbed are disproportionally impacted. Developmentally, school discipline has severe effects on a child’s perception of justice, fairness, trust, capability, and self-worth and may contribute to feelings of social isolation and alienation and to engaging in high-risk behaviors.
Other school policies that have been associated with dropout include high student-to-teacher ratios, academic tracking, and a discrepancy between faculty and student demographic characteristics. Low levels of engagement to school also predict dropout. Related, a lack of sufficient programs for pregnant and parenting teens as well as comprehensive health and sex-education programs and availability of social services build barriers that make the success of particular groups of students nearly impossible. Schools that adopt such programs buffer school dropout with tremendous success.
The Controversy over Data Reporting
The issue of reporting data becomes controversial due to its absence and lack of any standardized, reliable, and valid data-collection formula. Until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, there was no federal mandate requiring graduation rate reporting. Before this, only some states kept graduation rate data. This law, while unearthing the chasm in public education, has also positioned itself in a way that can promulgate the crisis. This NCLB mandate provides little protection for low-performing students to not be pushed out of schools. Districts, in order to meet the incentives for improving their graduation rates and for meeting the annual yearly progress requirement, push lower-performing students into alternative school programs, where they are not counted as dropouts.
Also undermining any real attempt by NCLB to ensure equal educational attainment are two principles of the law. First, unlike the accountability mandates, which require test score and achievement data to be kept demographically—by income, race / ethnicity, special education status, and limited English proficiency—and for which adequate yearly progress must be made in at least one of these historically low-performing groups, when calculating the graduation rate, states must only count the overall rate; they do not have to record by demographics. This allows young people on the margins to be practically ignored and disparities in graduation rates to be silenced. Second, and also incongruent with the accountability mandates that stipulate that 100 percent of all students receive “proficient” test scores by 2014, states can establish their own formula for calculating graduation rates and their own graduation rate goals, which can range between 50 and100 percent. What NCLB has effectively done is to create a loophole that ensures, if not requires, students to be pushed out of schools in order to meet the more stringent accountability mandates—to which funding and school takeover sanctions are attached. By giving federal permission for states to aspire to a mere 50 percent graduation rate without having to record demographic data, the federal government has given the doorway for how to achieve 100 percent proficiency while maintaining the historic class and racial structure of society.
In recent years, several reports have published studies that examine and develop more accurate, comprehensive, and representative methods for calculating and capturing the landscape of educational attainment. Specifically, these measures are indicators of high school graduation rates rather than of the more traditional and common statistics that measure either dropout rates or high school completion rates. (Dropout rates can be calculated in one of three ways: event dropout rates, status dropout rates, and cohort dropout rates.) Each of these different measures will produce very different results. To date, most states calculate dropout rates, a figure that is not the equivalent of graduation rates (those reported here).
While these newer reports calculate nearly identical statistics on high school graduation rates, data used here are from a formula developed by Christopher Swanson of the Urban Institute. This formula is the best proxy for current graduation rates, and the subsequent research details the most “extensive set of systematic empirical findings on public school graduation rates available to date for the nation as a whole and for each of the states” (Swanson 2004b, 1). The method developed is called the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI), and it is applied to data from the Common Core of Data (CCD), the U.S. Department of Education’s database, as the measure to calculate high school graduation rates. The CCD database is the most complete source of information on all public schools and local education agencies in the United States. The CPI is a variation of cohort dropout rates in that it “approximates the probability that a student entering the 9th grade will complete high school on time [in four years] with a regular diploma. It does this by representing high school graduation as a stepwise process composed of three grade-to-grade promotion transitions (9 to 10, 10 to 11, and 11 to 12) in addition to the ultimate high school graduation event (grade 12 to diploma)” (Swanson 2004a, 7). It is important to emphasize that the CPI only counts students who receive high school diplomas as graduates and not those who earn a GED or other alternative credentials, thus overrepresenting the number of people “graduating” from high school. This is in keeping with the NCLB mandate for what constitutes a diploma. This index was created as a response to methods that are commonly used to determine educational attainment.
The more common statistical measures of dropout rates and high school completion rates have significant limitations. Dropout rates, meant to capture only the percentage of students that actually drop out of school, are based on underreported and underrepresented data, because there is no standard mechanism for reporting, coding, or accounting for students who drop out. Districts often title students who may have indeed dropped out or been pushed out as having transferred or moved or as missing. This false representation leads to an exaggerated picture of how well a school is doing. High school completion rates count General Educational Development (GED) graduates and students receiving alternative credentials as high school graduates. As such, data measuring high school completion differ greatly from those measuring graduation rates. Incorporating GEDs and other alternative credentials in graduation rates is problematic for two primary reasons. First, recipients of the GED or alternative certifications are not graduates of high school; therefore, their credentials cannot be attributed to the school system. Second, the economic and higher educational returns from students with a GED is not equivalent to those with a high school diploma.
The most common graduation and dropout statistics are cited from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which calculates its data as high school completion rates but reports its data as a high school graduation rate of over 85 percent (2007). The NCES statistic has relatively low levels of national coverage and is computed using data from only 54 percent of U.S. school districts and 45 percent of the student population.
The NCES uses data from the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, is a simple self-report survey conducted in noninstitutionalized settings and on people who are neither currently in school nor recently graduated. This measure surveys the general young adult population (ages 18–24), not school district information. Students may report GED attainment as high school completion, they may misrepresent their education level, and it may underrepresent low-income youth who are disproportionately dropouts. Youth in low-income communities are often harder to find and interview. The CPS also underrepresents black and Latino youth, who are incarcerated at high rates and are therefore excluded from participating in the survey because prisons are institutionalized settings. Collectively, this measure offers a much higher and nonreliable depiction of the state of high school graduation— one that masks the crisis.
The implications of how dropout is framed—either as an individual burden or as the fault of the institution—have drastically different consequences. For each young person disenfranchised by his or her school system, there is a fraying of the public belief in the common good, a threat to a collective sense of democratic belonging, substantial losses to communities, economic and social impacts, heavy consequences for criminal justice, costs to civic and political participation, and dire implications for health.
With increasing public and educational consciousness about the graduation rate crisis, many innovative and effective dropout-prevention programs are being created and implemented. With the move for schools to incorporate school-based health centers and other social service supports, young people are provided supports and resources that make their engagement and success in school possible. When schools and programs reflect the stance that schools need to support students, and not that students are deficient of success, this crisis has the ability to change.
- Fine, M., Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public High School. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
- Franklin, C., et al., eds., The School Practitioner’s Concise Companion to Preventing Dropout and Attendance Problems. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Mishel, L., and J. Roy, Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends. Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2006.
- Orfield, G., ed., Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2004.
- Swanson, C., The Real Truth about Low Graduation Rates: An Evidence-Based Commentary. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2004a.
- Swanson, C., Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t? A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2004b.