Sunday, 10 November 2013

Picking Up Our Dropouts

            There are few things in life as important as a good education. Our education provides us with a foundation upon which to build our careers. Without a solid base, it is unlikely that our efforts to create a fulfilling career will come to fruition. There are exceptions of course, as we have all heard stories of self-made millionaires who dropped out of high school to create a business empire, but these anecdotes are certainly not the rule. For those of us who are not quite so naturally business savvy, a formal education can give us the skills and knowledge necessary to gain the experience needed to meet our career goals. So why would we give up on our education? More specifically, why are kids dropping out of high school and what can be done to help?

            In many ways, high school is our first foray into adult life. No longer are we under the supervision of a single teacher who is in some ways acting like a parental figure. Instead, we set off from class to class, begin to choose our own path, form friendships outside our class group, and are often left to our own devices. It is at this point that students begin to realize that they have a choice in their education: they can choose what courses they take, whether or not to attend their classes, and even whether they want to be in school at all (legally, after they turn 16). What can be done to help these students make the right choices? How can we keep them engaged?

            The first step in coming up with a solution to a problem like high school dropout rates is to understand the effects of dropping out, what kids are most at risk and why. This may seem like a simple task at first, but as soon as we look at the numbers, the complexity of this problem is readily apparent. A review of the statistics surrounding high school dropouts by Heather-Jane Robertson (2006) sheds some light on the situation. First the good news: dropout rates have been in decline, (7% between 1990/1991 and 2006). However, this decline has slowed over recent years. Although this number is moving in the right direction, there are still issues for the nearly 10% of Canadian students who decide to drop out of school. In 2009/2010, dropouts earned on average, $70 less a week than their graduated peers (Gilmore, 2010). This is not a small difference. The lower a person’s income, the more each dollar counts. A difference of 70 dollars can prevent a person from eating healthily, purchasing important prescription medications, or simply enjoying the small purchases that many of us take for granted, like hot coffee on a cold winter morning.

            When discussing the different factors that put students at an increased risk for dropping out, family circumstances are often listed. As Robertson (2006) points out, this includes students who come from single-parent families, have parents who have not completed postsecondary education and have a substantially lower family income. However, Family circumstances are not the only factors that help to determine who is at risk of dropping. Psychological and personality factors including low self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-mastery also play a role. It is no surprise that students’ beliefs about their own abilities may impact their decision to stay in school. Both family background and psychological factors can help us predict who may be at risk for dropping out, but why do these kids ultimately decide to leave school?

            Attitudes toward school may be behind students’ decision to leave school prematurely. When asked about their continuing education goals, dropouts are more likely to believe that they were not “smart enough” to excel in a college setting. They also view school as an unfriendly place with unfair disciplinary policies and choose to hang out with like-minded students. Male
dropouts in particular are likely to report “getting into trouble” at school, while females are more often affected by life circumstances such as having a dependent child. It is easy to see why school becomes a place where some students would rather not be. Future dropouts certainly seem to view school as an unwelcome environment; nearly a quarter of all dropouts report having been kicked out of school, being sent to the principal’s office and skipping classes on a weekly basis. So what can be done to help Canadian high school students finish their secondary education? We know the implications and difficulties of dropping out of high school, we have a basic understanding of who drops out and why, but we are still failing a substantial proportion of these students. One of the most sobering statistics reported by Robertson (2006) surrounding drop out rates is that at the age of 15, 59% of future dropouts expressed a desire to attend a post-secondary institution. These kids are not simply saying “to hell with school”, they are being left behind, and that needs to change.

            So what can we do? Firstly, we need to stop blaming the schools, the teachers, the parents, the administrators, and certainly not the students themselves. Instead we should look for solutions that have worked in other areas and settings. We also need to understand that within-school measures are not going to be sufficient to tackle this problem. A structured support system needs to be built around these students, one that not only exists within the school, but within the community and at home as well. We know that home life can adversely affect a student’s performance, but why can’t we help to ensure that it does the opposite? By reaching out to parents and involving them in their kids education, explaining the outcomes of poor academic performance, and teaching them the tools to help support their child’s academic performance, we can help students to recognize the importance of their education.

            Another valuable resource at every school are the students who are doing well. Mentoring and support groups can help students gain the skills and knowledge to succeed at their class work, and thereby change their perceptions of the school environment itself. School seems a lot more welcoming when you are doing well and feeling prepared. How many of the negative attitudes expressed by dropouts are simply due to anxiety? By helping students feel prepared, supporting them both at school and at home, and by simply recognizing that despite their outward expressions of disdain, anger or indifference these kids really do want to succeed and make something of their lives, we can pick our potential drop outs back up and set them on a path toward a fulfilling future.

-Chad Buckland

Robertson, H. J. (2006). Dropouts or leftouts? School leavers in Canada. Phi Delta
        Kappan, 87(9), 715-717. Retrieved from

Gilmore, J. (2010). Trends in dropout rates and the labour market outcomes of 
        young dropouts. Retrieved from

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