The Dropout Problem and What Can Be Done About It

The Wall Street Journal recently released some staggering statistics: less than 40% of Americans over age 25 with less than a high school diploma are employed, and those who are employed make about $23,400 on average. Another report by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research indicates that about a third of young men with less than a high school degree have had contact with the criminal justice system. While there is often controversy as to how dropout rates should be measured, the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools points out that even the most optimistic figures suggest that too many students are leaving school early.

Authors John H. Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom in their chapter on “Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery” point out that while much is known about the characteristics of students who do not complete high school, much less is known about the reasons why. A student’s decision to drop out of school, say the authors, is affected by a number of complex factors including student characteristics such as poor school performance and engagement, school characteristics related to school resources and student-teacher ratios, and family characteristics such as parent socioeconomic status and family structure.

Due to the wide range of factors associated with dropout rates, some communities are pushing for a more comprehensive prevention approach. PBS NewsHour reports that in Washington, D.C., individual success stories will be advertised at bus stops and on radio commercials – efforts by a truancy task force created by health and family services and law enforcement agencies. In disciplining students who skip school many communities are placing greater emphasis on counseling, parenting classes, and community service and less exposure to the criminal justice system. Evaluating the effectiveness of these and other prevention efforts is important. As the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools indicates, although hundreds of dropout prevention programs exist, very little evidence has been collected regarding their effectiveness.

To combat the dropout problem, in his State of the Union President Obama urged states to require all students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. In response to President Obama’s call, Senior Editor of the Future of Children Cecilia Rouse coauthored a New York Times piece suggesting that while President Obama’s efforts are a step in the right direction, the most effective solutions should begin much earlier. “Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start (early); preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Read more about programs for improving outcomes among adolescents and young adults in the Future of Children volumes School Readiness, Transition to Adulthood and Juvenile Justice.