Commentary

Dropouts Are Not Always Failures; The Schools Often Share the Blame

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America's secondary-school educators cannot be satisfied with their performance as long as substantial numbers of pupils are not graduating from high school. While the national percentage of high-school graduates has hovered at about 75 percent for two decades, the depressing fact remains that in that same period 800,000 to 1-million school-aged youths have annually forsaken the educational process. To continue to allow legions of young Americans to leave school unrecognized and unchallenged seems an incredible waste of human resources.

The motives for this exodus are as varied as the leavers themselves. But there is evidence that schools, themselves, cause many students to drop out. The words of one recent dropout--"I never wanted to leave in the first place, but I was made to feel inferior and stupid"--support the educational psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner's contention that schools are "one of the most potent breeding grounds of alienation in American society."

Many general assumptions about school dropouts are inaccurate when applied to a specific school and specific students. The stereotyped image of the dropout as an illiterate, inarticulate, unmanageable troublemaker simply was not borne out in a recent survey of dropouts at an inner-city school in Massachusetts.

Over half of the dropouts interviewed had no record of disciplinary infractions and only 17 percent were failing. More significantly, since nearly 40 percent of the respondents were in college-preparatory classes, it would appear that highly capable youngsters are also being turned off and out.

It is important to note that little research on dropouts has concerned itself directly with the dropout, other than in terms of numbers and percentages of school leavers. The idea, though, of a school utilizing input from its own dropouts as a basis for improving its programs, as well as its efforts to reduce dropout rates, is essential for schools to gain a clear understanding of the problem. When assured of anonymity, dropouts are more willing to participate in surveys than might be anticipated, as the 42-percent response rate in the Worcester, Mass., study suggests.

The ex-pupils were willing to offer their perceptions of school and staff members and to propose solutions to school problems. Some leavers even wrote comments on the margins of the survey sheets, ranging from "Stop kicking kids out of school" to "I hope you can keep a lot more kids in school by changing some things."

The study found two factors to have the highest correlation to dropping out--high absenteeism and nonparticipation in school activities. Nearly 70 percent of the students surveyed admitted to excessive absenteeism, while 80 percent said they never participated in any school activities. Such statistics reflect the primary manifestation of a defense strategy commonly employed by students to counteract an alienating school environment--they avoid it.

When asked why they had left school, nearly 80 percent of the dropouts offered reasons directly associated with factors in the school: a general dislike of school, feelings of boredom, a sense of not learning anything, problems with teachers, poor marks, and problems with administrators.

For many of the leavers, the act of departing was simply the culmination of a natural progression initiated upon their enrollment: "I felt like an outsider," "I felt uncomfortable," or "I felt like I didn't belong."

More than 40 percent of the school leavers viewed the teacher-pupil relationship as an adversary situation, one culminating in the teachers' use of grades "as a way to get back at students." Dropouts used such terms as "put you down," "put you aside," or "gave me a hard time" to suggest that they felt rejected by their teachers. Convinced that there were no adults in school to whom they could turn, it is not surprising that 72 percent of the dropouts did not consult with any school personnel prior to leaving.

More than 70 percent of the leavers said they might have stayed if school had been different, particularly "if teachers paid more attention to students," "if we were treated as students, not as inmates," and if teachers made it fun to learn.

Thirteen percent stated emphatically that they would not return to school under any circumstances: "I just don't want to go back," "My interest is lost," "The system is too far gone," and "It's too late for me as well as for others I know who were treated badly," were typical comments.

In dealing with their anxieties, pupils are often reinforced in the feeling that somehow they are to blame for the existing situation. Tragically, there are teachers who encourage pupils not to come to school because they are too much trouble. And there are administrators who turn a deaf ear to potential dropouts because too often they equate their effectiveness as administrators simply with quiet in the halls. The very people and institutions that propose to help youths, find themselves becoming, in reality, instruments that further pupils' feelings of anxiety, frustration, and blame. The great danger is that the students then accept the prevailing judgment of their unacceptability. But some do, saying, for example, "Sometimes I deserved trouble," "... that ain't the teachers' fault, it's my fault," and "School's O.K., the one that was wrong was me."

Little good can be achieved by simply returning the dropouts to the environments from which they have fled. Educators must strive to develop within the schools the means to counter some of the forces influencing pupils to drop out. Dropouts visualize themselves as powerless and uninvolved in school decisions, mere residents who have no input into the day-to-day activities that affect their lives. What they want from school staff members is mutual respect, greater understanding, fair treatment, and a willingness to listen. They are particularly sensitive to being ignored, treated rudely or unfairly, or being made to feel inadequate.

Schools have failed to address the needs of dropouts. But the "solutions" proposed by dropouts themselves appear deceptively attainable. The ingredients of a school environment that would reduce the number of dropouts is a reiteration of what constitutes desirable and effective education under any circumstances. Educators should accept the dropouts' challenge. The improvement in school climate that will result from serious consideration of the dropouts' concerns will benefit all who participate in the educational process. It would seem worth pursuing.

Vol. 02, Issue 28, Page 18

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