Dropouts reflect on why they left school, how schools can help students graduate

Woman with a study groupStates should consider raising the age when students can legally leave school from 16 or 17 to 18, says a report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is based on interviews with 467 dropouts aged 16 through 25.

“Students identified ‘too much freedom’ as a key factor that enabled them to drop out of school, and attendance is a strong predictor of dropping out,” says The Silent Epidemic Perspectives of High School Dropouts.

“Typically in 10th grade, a 16-year-old student has new found authority under law to make a choice,” the report says. “We question the soundness of this policy, particularly since our nation guarantees, and provides substantial resources for a public education through 12th grade.

“Our educated guess (and hope) is that raising maximum compulsory school age requirements– specifically raising the legal dropout age to 18–would . . . have a significant effect on reducing the dropout rate.” The key, says the report, is to couple the change “with well-trained staff, more manageable caseloads, working with other government agencies to support parents and guardians who struggle to keep their children in school, and efforts to address the issues that caused students to leave school.”


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While some states do not allow students to drop out until they are 18, there are also many exemptions with a school district’s or parents’ permission or for employment, the study notes. Dropouts cited these personal reasons for leaving school:

  • 32% needed a job;
  • 26% became parents; and
  • 22% had to care for a family member.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation report, based on interviews with a diverse population of dropouts in 25 urban areas, suburbs and towns across the country, is a valuable resource for educators and administrators who want to gain insight into the dropout problem and who want to work to improve the graduation rates at their schools.

Classes not interesting

When dropouts themselves discussed why they had left school in one-on-one interviews and also in four focus groups, nearly 47% said that “classes were not interesting.” This was among the top reasons cited by youths with high GPAs.

Among other comments by dropouts were that they would have worked harder if more was demanded (67%) and that they lost interest in school in 9th or 10th grade (71%). When asked what schools could to improve students’ chances of staying in school:

  • 81% said there should be more opportunities for real-world and experiential learning so that students could see a connection between school and a good job;
  • 75% wanted smaller classes and one-onone attention by teachers;
  • 55% felt that more help is needed for students who have problems learning;
  • 70% believed more tutoring, summer school and extra time with teachers would have improved their chances of graduation; and
  • 81% said they wanted better teachers.

One study cited in the report (“The Distribution of Dropout and Turnover Rates among Urban and Suburban High Schools.” Sociology of Education 73 2000: 55-56) found that if students perceive their teachers to be of higher quality, they are less likely to drop out.

Absenteeism warning sign “Dropping out of high school is not a sudden act, but a slow process of disengagement, often both academically and socially,” the study says. Some 59-65% of youths missed class often the year they dropped out and 33-45% missed class often the year before they dropped out.

Missing too much school was the second most often cited reason for dropping out. “Students described a pattern of refusing to wake up, missing school, skipping class, and taking three hour lunches–and each absence made them less willing to go back.”

In the Philadelphia focus group one dropout, who only attended school once a week, said that his best days in school were when he worked hard and could talk about what he learned at home. When asked why he only went to school once a week, he said it was because he had too much freedom in the school environment. “The streets would call you,” he said. “Being there listening to somebody talking to you all day, writing on the board, and then you start looking outside at the streets… . We got to leave for lunch in my school. And then once we got out there, smelled that fresh air… .”

In the focus groups, participants talked about the lack of rules–of being late for school, skipping classes and hanging out in the hallways with no consequences. One Baltimore youth said, “Like in the middle of the year, I just started going out with my friends, and I never went to school. It’s like I forgot about it.”

Too much freedom “‘Too much freedom’ seemed to relate to the most basic conditions in the school–lack of order, discipline and rules, making sure students attended class, and even limiting chaos that made students feel unsafe,” the report says.

“Many participants in our focus groups felt that there were many things in their lives that pulled them away from school and the newfound freedom of high school made it more compelling to leave than to stay.When asked what their schools could do to keep students in school:

  • 68% said keep students from skipping classes;
  • 62% said maintain classroom discipline;
  • 57% said help students feel safe from violence.

What schools can do To encourage students to stay in school, the youths recommended that schools ensure that students have a strong relationship with at least one adult in the school.”These young people craved one-on-one attention from their teachers, and when they received it, they remembered it making a difference,” the study says. “Participants in the focus groups recounted that some of their best days were when their teachers noticed them, got them involved in class, and told them they were doing well.”

Increase parental involvement

The dropouts said schools should improve communication with parents and increase parental involvement. Less than half said their school contacted their parents or themselves when they were absent (47%) or when they dropped out (48%), the report says.

“Studies have shown that students with parents who are engaged in their lives–by monitoring and regulating their activities, talking with them about their problems, encouraging individual decision-making and being more involved in the school–are less likely to drop out of school,” the report says.

The majority of parents were not aware of their child’s grades or that they were about to drop out, the youths said. The youths suggested that increased parental involvement could influence students to come to school every day and attend classes. Communication between parents and schools is critical to identifying and addressing problems early, the report says.

Recommendations for change Based on the feedback in four focus groups and in interviews with 467 dropouts, the foundation made these additional recommendations for change, especially in districts that have a high dropout rate:

Offer more school choices Students in the survey wanted classes more relevant to their interests and work lives and also wanted smaller classes and schools. The Foundation concluded that alternative high schools, theme-based schools, such as ones that focus on science or the arts, or even schools with a rigorous curriculum, could help keep more students in school.

Create Individualized graduation plans One way to increase involvement of parents, the study suggests, is by developing individualized graduation plans for each student, particularly those at risk of dropping out. These plans would help the parents become more aware of the specific requirements for their high school students and would also help them advocate for their child.

Create early warning systems Schools and districts need to develop early warning systems to identify students who are less likely to succeed in school, the study says. This system should take into accounts students who transfer from school to school. One clear trigger is absenteeism. “Every day, schools should have a reliable list of the students who failed to attend school and should notify parents or guardians immediately and take appropriate action to ensure students attend school and have the support they need to remain in school,” the study says.

Improve accuracy of graduation rates No Child Left Behind has placed a new focus on graduation rates, but the accountability provisions need to be monitored and enforced, the study says. “It’s not unusual for a school to report a 10% dropout rate when the number of graduates is 70% lower than the number of ninth graders who enrolled four years earlier,” the researchers say. “Schools often have little or no information about what has happened to a student who disappears, and they tend to make optimistic guesses.”

Top five reasons for dropping out of school:

Classes were not interesting 47%

Missed too many days of school 43%

Friends not interested in school 42%

Too much freedom 38%

Failing in school 35%

“The Silent Epidemic Perspectives of High School Dropouts” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation March 2006 www.gatesfoundation.org

Published in ERN March 2006 Volume 19 Number 3

4 Responses to “Dropouts reflect on why they left school, how schools can help students graduate”

  1. Kwanasia

    This is so true, I’m in the process of dropping out now. I know what I want to be. Schools doesn’t teach me anything about how to survive, just a bunch of irrelevant crap. And the teachers are slacking and not giving us any work. The older generation is coming to an end, now all we have are these newer generation teachers doing half descent jobs. I never got tested for it, but I’m pretty sure I have dyslexia. No matter how much I try I can’t stay focused and get good grades. I don’t register simple instructions as fast as even the struggling students of my class. These days, there are no special programs for people like me. Either you meet the standard or you get left behind! I’m not dumb, just not school smart. But I’m a genius at what I do (animation) and I have perfectly good speech and writing skills. Only thing school does is make me feel like inadiquit crap. I’m 18 and jobless so I’m better off progressing in work then I am wasting my time at school.

    • Dude

      How do “progress in work” when you are unemployed? Typical dropouts are unemployed more than 1/2 of their life, and when they are employed, they make about half as much as high school graduates. So good luck with that.

  2. jig

    i’m dropping out of school after our teacher insulted me in favor of her pets. She didn’t even verify if i was truly at fault. Before that, a male teacher belittled my previous job. I didn’t even disrespected him. Now who needs a school with teachers like that? I was very happy before i went back to school. I should have stayed working.

    • Dude

      There are 7 billion people on the planet. Don’t let one idiot affect what you do with your life.


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