Sanctioning Dropouts as Answer to Schools’ ‘Stay-In’ Problem

June 14, 1989 7 min read

Educators should allow marginal students to leave high school before graduation rather than water down curricula and standards in an effort to persuade such youths to stay, writes Jackson Toby in the spring issue of The Public Interest.

Instead of trying to prevent dropouts, argues Mr. Toby, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Criminological Research at Rutgers University, schools should be more concerned with the “stay-in” problem caused by plainly uninterested students.

Mr. Toby advocates what he calls the “Gershwin approach,” after the composer George Gershwin, who left high school at age 15 to take a job on Tin Pan Alley. Gershwin’s subsequent career was not damaged--and was probably even aided--by his decision to drop out, Mr. Toby suggests.

Even though potential Gershwins are probably few and far between, he says, students with little desire to remain in school would probably be no worse off if they were permitted to depart without the stigma of failure currently applied to dropouts.

For their part, the schools would be better off without such students, Mr. Toby continues.

The disruptions and violence frequently caused by potential dropouts would be eliminated, he says. And schools would no longer be forced by the “desire to keep students enrolled ... to offer courses, and especially electives, that have precious little educational value for anybody,” he writes.

Instead, they could offer young people the opportunity to choose to leave school at age 15, with the promise of school assistance in the first steps of their career. Those who found the world of work less inviting than they expected would be guaranteed immediate reacceptance into school.

“Our national preoccupation with getting everyone through high school is wrecking the educational system, especially in inner-city neighborhoods--where good schools can save kids from catastrophe,” Mr. Toby concludes.

The school-choice movement is an “unanticipated” but much-needed outgrowth of the school-desegregation movement, suggests David J. Armor, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for force management and personnel, in the same issue of The Public Interest.

Choice plans, and magnet schools in particular, he writes, solve two pressing problems of mandatory desegregation plans: They restore control to parents, and they broaden the focus from simple racial mixing to include educational concerns.

Allowing parents to choose schools, he argues, can help prevent the movement of white students to suburban and private schools that has undermined many mandatory desegregation programs.

While racial prejudice has undoubtedly played a role in “white flight,” evidence suggests that prejudice has declined over the past 20 years in both the South and the North, he says.

“White flight is instead best viewed as a result of parents’ desires to control how and where their children are educated,” he writes, noting that many white parents have chosen to enroll their children in predominantly minority schools when they offer desirable programs.

“When parents are allowed to choose among a variety of specialized programs, magnet schools not only further integration but also improve student motivation and performance, heighten parental involvement, and even attract parents back to the public schools.”

“Unfortunately,” he continues, “such magnet programs are all too rare.”

And most mandatory desegregation plans, Mr. Armor argues, “have ignored pedagogy and curricula.”

“It is therefore not surprising that racial-balance programs have largely failed to meet their ultimate educational goal: to improve the academic performance of minority students.”

Magnet schools, with their explicit emphasis on curricular themes and improvements, offer a needed dose of diversity to public education, he writes.

Linking choice programs and integration may be the “best bet” for advocates of expanded choice, he concludes--"not only because this combination unites several politically disparate groups, but also because it has already succeeded in many school systems.”

A 30-year study of Hawaiian children on the island of Kauai sheds light on ways in which some children--as a result of both innate personality strengths and outside emotional support--are able to overcome physical disadvantages and impoverished home lives.

The study--described by Emmy E. Werner in the April issue of Scientific American--was launched in 1954 and initially involved approximately 700 infants.

Of those surviving at age 2, 201 children were deemed at “high risk’’ for developing physical, behavioral, and social impairments by virtue of complications in the mother’s pregnancy, chronic poverty, low educational status of parents, or a home environment “troubled by discord, divorce, parental alcoholism, or mental illness.”

Two-thirds of 129 children plagued by four or more risk factors developed learning and behavior problems by age 10 and later had records of delinquency, mental-health problems, or early pregnancy.

Yet one out of three “grew into competent young adults who loved well, worked well, and played well,” reports Ms. Werner, who is professor of human development at the University of California at Davis.

Although they had a higher incidence of health-related problems than “low risk” peers, many successfully completed high school, received some college education, and were satisfied with their jobs. They often had strong marriages and religious ties, and some even rebounded successfully from early pregnancies and delinquency in their teens.

Personal qualities shared by many of those who overcame their disadvantages included a high level of activity, low excitability, and a high degree of sociability, Ms. Werner writes. They were commonly characterized by their parents as affectionate and even-tempered babies who had regular eating and sleeping habits.

In elementary school, these children displayed an aptitude for concentration, reading, and problem solving; a tendency to use their talents effectively; and an interest in hobbies.

In spite of family discord, they often established a close bond with a caretaker, such as a sibling, grandparent, or babysitter.

Girls and boys thrust into leadership roles in the family as a result of parental employment or illness had a “pronounced” sense of autonomy and responsibility that contributed to their resilience, Ms. Werner notes.

They also sought support from friends and neighbors and looked to favorite teachers, community leaders, and ministers as role models.

“With the help of these support networks,” Ms. Werner writes, “the resilient children developed a sense of meaning in their lives and a belief that they could control their fate.”

Such data, she concludes, suggest that it may be more sensible and less costly “to strengthen such available informal ties to kin and community” than to “introduce additional layers of bureaucracy into delivery of services.”

“After a generation of dissension and confusion, schools have turned their attention back to the moral fiber of their young charges,” observes Eleanor Smith in an article in Psychology Today identifying several new approaches to moral education.

Though objections to the teaching of values in the classroom continue to be raised by extremists on both the right and left, writes Ms. Smith in the magazine’s May issue, “many school districts skirt the activist element by inviting members of their communities to come together to work out an acceptable approach.”

Two programs centering on character development--"cooperative learning” and “competition"--are cited as “major models” by the author, an Oakland, Calif.-based writer.

Cooperative learning, she reports, involves “small groups of children working on a common, usually academic task to promote cooperation, problem-solving skills, and the ability to see other points of view.”

In contrast, the competitive model relies for its success on students’ participation in extracurricular activities. "[S]tudents compete with themselves by setting specific scholastic and citizenship goals,” writes Ms. Smith.

Fostering motivation to succeed and improve oneself is the key to both approaches, she says.

Research indicates that students and teachers interact differently in the two models. But children in both, she reports, “expressed a greater preference for resolving conflicts verbally rather than physically; helping others, even if it means sacrificing something themselves; making up for some wrongdoing; and thinking independently, than children who were not in the programs.”

The cost of neglect has become “unbearable,” contends Ms. Smith, who concludes that as “support for moral education grows, more schools will join the movement.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as Sanctioning Dropouts as Answer to Schools’ ‘Stay-In’ Problem