Organizing high schools to lower dropout rates

7048967605_1754966fcb_zResearch into dropout behavior has mostly focused on students’ background and academic performance. New studies find that regardless of background characteristics, students are less likely to drop out of schools that offer mainly academic courses and few nonacademic ones. Students in smaller schools, where relationships between teachers and students are more likely to be positive, are also less likely to drop out. Researchers Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam, University of Michigan, studied a sample of 3,840 students in 190 urban and suburban schools from the High School Effectiveness Supplement of the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. Although they took into account students’ academic and social background, they focused on schools’ curriculum, size, and social relations.

Students reminded daily of failure

Researchers have commonly studied dropping out of school as a function of students’ personal background and behavior, believing that students themselves are at fault for making unwise choices. Lee and Burkam suggest, however, that students’ decisions to leave school are made gradually, often in an environment in which they are reminded daily of their academic and social failure. Previous research shows that factors such as race/ethnicity, age, language, gender, family income, parents’ education and family structure are associated with the risk of school failure. Minority students from poor and single-parent families are at greater risk of dropping out of school. Absenteeism, retention, special-education placement, discipline problems and poor grades also put students at greater risk of dropping out.

Lee and Burkam write that while students and schools have little control over social risk factors such as background and family characteristics, academic risk factors can be changed. Schools can create conditions that either push vulnerable students out of school or help to hold students in school. The highest dropout rates are in the large, comprehensive high schools, especially in urban areas where sometimes more than 50 percent of the entering class does not graduate. When comparing types of schools, these researchers found that Catholic and independent schools had lower dropout rates than public schools, even after controlling for school size and academic and demographic features of students. In addition, students learned more and learning was more equitably distributed across socioeconomic groups in small high schools with 600 to 900 students. Students also reported that smaller schools fostered more positive relations between students and teachers, and that teachers took more personal responsibility for students’ learning. These authors believe that school size influences structural and organizational factors that, in turn, influence students’ learning.

Few remedial courses is better

A growing body of research demonstrates that students learn more and that learning is distributed more evenly across the student body in schools whose curriculum consists mostly of academic courses with few low-level courses offered. These researchers believe that one of the reasons why Catholic and independent schools educate a wide variety of students at a higher level is because their core-based curricula offer few remedial or nonacademic options.

Students who do poorly and seem disengaged from school report a lack of connection with teachers. They claim teachers don’t care about them, are not interested in how they are doing and are not willing to help them with problems. Interviews with dropouts reveal that half quit school for social reasons – because they don’t get along with teachers or students. In contrast, studies have shown that positive social relationships can make students want to come to school even if the work is difficult and expectations are hard to meet.

While the major focus of previous research on dropouts has been on students’ social and academic risk factors, some recent studies focus on how schools can influence these behaviors. Researchers are beginning to look at how schools can structure their social and academic elements to encourage engagement in school.

Schools can influence dropout behavior

Lee and Burkam’s study explores this link between school organization and structure and students’ decision to drop out of school. They investigated how characteristics of schools influence students’ attitudes and behaviors. Results provide further empirical evidence that schools can influence dropout behavior, independent of individuals’ background factors. The structure of the high school curriculum is important in holding students in school until graduation. Regardless of students’ background and school performance, schools with an academic curriculum that includes more challenging courses, fewer remedial or nonacademic courses, hold students in school.

Organizational features that come with smaller schools – such as how teachers and students relate to one another and how well they know each other – affect students’ dropout decisions. This study demonstrates that school size is important and that students in small-to-medium-sized schools are less likely to drop out. Apart from other factors, students are less likely to drop out of high schools where they perceive their relationships with teachers as positive. When schools get very large (over 1,500), maintaining close relationships with students is much more difficult.

Good social relations with teachers are key

Lee and Burkam assert that the adults who work in schools can consciously change how they interact with their students. Students will stay in school, they conclude, when social relations with teachers are positive, even when the work is demanding. This is true even when students come from at-risk backgrounds and have poor academic records.

“Dropping Out of High School: The Role of School Organization and Structure”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 40, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 353-393.

Published in ERN November 2003 Volume 16 Number 8

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