In dropout prevention, effective teaching practices are first line of defense

After the examTo reduce the number of students who drop out of school, schools should go back to the basics, advise researchers in a recent article in Remedial and Special Education. “Schools should focus on bringing effective teaching practices in the classroom that engage students in learning rather than on developing more social, behavioral and psychological interventions for high risk students,” write researchers Loujeania Bost and Paul Riccomini.

While many dropout prevention programs contain academic components, “effective teaching practices are largely absent from the milieu of interventions and programs employed by schools to address dropout prevention,” the researchers write.

This void persists even though the research has clearly connected dropping out of school with prolonged low achievement, they write. Classroom instructional design and delivery should be viewed as a strategy that is directly related to dropout prevention efforts, the researchers say.

Students with disabilities at high risk

Public reporting of dropout data is placing more pressure on schools and districts to reduce dropout rates.

So far, improving early reading and literacy, before- and after-school remediation programs, summer programs, mentoring and tutoring programs and alternative schools have been beneficial strategies. However, the scale of these efforts “remains inadequate to significantly affect dropout rates,” the researchers write.

Students with disabilities, a population that is at  high risk of dropping out, need to be better targeted in prevention and intervention efforts, the researchers say.  Approximately 51% of students with emotional and behavioral disorders and 27% of students with learning disabilities drop out of school, the researchers say.

“Rather unfortunately, the programs and strategies implemented in schools generally focus on social, behavioral, and psychological interventions designed to “fix” students and often do not include students with disabilities,” the researchers write.

Research on dropouts so far has focused largely on identifying causative and predictive factors. But researchers are now increasingly turning their attention to developing effective intervention programs, this study states.

Understanding reasons for dropping out

Students drop out of school for many different reasons. They include high absenteeism, poor academic performance, poor grades, course failure and retention, high-stakes testing requirements, and behavior problems leading to excessive discipline problems. Not all factors associated with dropping out can be targeted for interventions. “It is important to distinguish between status variables and alterable variables,” the researchers write.

Schools cannot design interventions for demographic factors related to gender, family dynamics, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, and mobility. But they can target absenteeism, academic performance, behavior, school climate, parental involvement, etc.

“Recognizing the difference between alterable and status variables is important when designing and implementing dropout prevention interventions,” the researchers say.

“Dropping out is not a single impulsive action. Some students show symptoms associated with dropping out in elementary school. Dropping out is a multifaceted process with links to disengagement from school,” the researchers write. Four components essential to school engagement include:

• opportunities for success in schoolwork;
• a caring and supportive environment;
• clear communication of the relevance of education to future endeavors; and
• addressing students’ personal problems.

Dropout prevention and school reform

“Understanding the diverse causative and predictive factors will help educators develop more effective prevention programs and strategies,” the researchers say.

“Dropout prevention must be considered in the context of other educational reforms and should not be treated as isolated programs,” the researchers say. Effective school learning, especially for students with diverse needs includes three factors: characteristics of the learner, time allocated for learning and quality of instruction. “The use of research-validated practices is essential to effective teaching practices,” they note.

The researchers summarized 10 principles of effective instruction and school engagement from a technical report on effective teaching principles. (Ellis, E.S., Worthington, L. & Larkin, M.J. “Executive summary of research synthesis on effective teaching principles and the design of quality tools for educators” Technical Report No. 6, University of Oregon, National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, 1994.)

10 principles of effective teaching

The 10 principles are:
1. Active Engagement: The amount of time students are actively engaged in relevant instructional tasks must increase.
2. Experience of success: If students do not experience success, their motivation quickly disappears.
3. Content coverage and opportunity to learn: The more content is covered, the greater the potential for student learning.
4. Grouping for instruction: Students achieve the most when they are engaged in learning activities supervised directly by teachers.
5. Scaffolded instruction: Students benefit from a carefully and systematically sequenced series of prompted content, materials, tasks and teacher support.
6. Addressing forms of knowledge: Teachers should address all forms of knowledge, declarative (basic facts and vocabulary); procedural knowledge (steps used to solve problems), and conditional (when and where to use certain strategies).
7. Organizing knowledge: Moving from easier skills to more difficult skills helps students make progress.
8. Teaching strategically: Teaching students strategies that can be applied across various settings and situations helps them hone their skills.
9. Explicit instruction: Teachers can make instruction explicit by clearly stating the goals of the lesson, structuring the lesson in an obvious format and presenting content in a direct fashion.
10. Teaching sameness: Purposely designing instruction to help students recognize patterns and organize knowledge can help students learn.

“We cannot change what students learned last year, where students come from, or what the students do when they leave the classroom,” the researchers conclude. “However, we can focus on designing and delivering instruction that is more effective.”

“Effective Instruction: An Inconspicuous Strategy for Dropout Prevention” by Loujeania Bost and  Paul Riccomini. Remedial and Special Education September/October 2006 Volume 27, Number 5, Pp. 301-311.

Published in ERN January 2007 Volume 20 Number 1

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