Study Examines Girls' Reasons for Quitting School

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Contrary to popular belief, girls drop out of school in approximately the same numbers as boys, according to a report released this week by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Moreover, in 60 percent of the cases, pregnancy or marriage are not the reasons why girls leave school, the report says.

"When we think of who's likely to drop out of school, the first thing that comes to mind is a troublesome boy, who's disruptive, and the second thing that comes to mind is a pregnant girl,'' said Janice Earle, principal author of the study and coordinator for NASBE's youth-services program.

"Those two things are to some extent not reflective of reality,'' she said. "Aside from the issues related to pregnancy and parenting, we didn't feel that there had been a real examination of why girls, in particular, are leaving school.''

'Strong Supposition'

The report, "Female Dropouts: A New Perspective,'' summarizes previous studies on dropouts and the programs available to them.

It speculates that some existing school practices might encourage women, in particular, to leave school, by depressing their overall academic achievement.

For example, studies have shown that teachers talk less to female than to male students, counsel them less, and provide them with fewer directions and rewards. Schools also provide limited opportunities for students to work cooperatively, the report states, although girls may perform better in such situations than boys.

"We would never say that these things make girls drop out,'' said Ms. Earle. "That would really be a leap of logic. But we're making a strong supposition that they have an effect on self-esteem and academic achievement,'' she said, "and we know that those things are related to dropping out.''

The study was funded with a grant of approximately $100,000 from the U.S. Education Department under the Women's Education Equity Act. A second segment of the study, to be released in September, will look at promising programs and policies for preventing school dropouts, especially as they relate to women's needs.

Risk Factors

According to the report, some characteristics associated with dropping out apply to young men as well as to young women, such as poverty, low academic achievement, and low self-esteem.

Other factors, however, place females at special risk.

For example, the less schooling a mother has completed, the more likely her daughter is to drop out of school. Females whose fathers are in low-level jobs also drop out at nearly 40 percent the rate of those whose fathers are in professional or technical careers.

Having a large number of siblings may also influence young women to drop out of school. Approximately 11.2 percent of females with three siblings drop out, for example, compared with 20 percent of those with five siblings. For young men with the same number of siblings, the difference is only 14.7 percent versus 17.6 percent, respectively.

Even girls who drop out because of pregnancy or marriage may be suffering from more deep-rooted problems of low self-esteem and low academic achievement, the report notes.

Young women with poor or fair basic skills, for example, are four times as likely as those with average basic skills to have more than one child in their teens. Adolescents with poor basic skills are also five times as likely as those with average basic skills to become mothers before age 16.

Economic Losses

Females may also be bigger losers than males when they do drop out of school. According to the report, 49 percent of families headed by a female dropout live in poverty.

Analyses of data from the federal "High School and Beyond'' survey have also found that, of all groups, females and blacks fall the furthest behind in vocabulary, reading, and writing when they leave school early.

Other studies report that young Hispanic and black males and young urban males are more likely to return and complete high school than are young Hispanic, black, and urban female dropouts.

According to the report, "young women face severe economic penalties for dropping out of school.''

Approximately 61 percent of female high-school graduates hold white-collar positions, for instance, compared with 25 percent of female dropouts. Female dropouts earn just 29 percent of what male high-school graduates earn.

Special Attention

Although there are many dropout-prevention programs, the report notes, few are developed specifically for the majority of female dropouts.

"Most educators' attempts to keep girls (who are not pregnant) in school have employed the same strategies used to keep boys in school,'' the report states.

"Separate programs targeted to girls are not always necessary,'' it adds. "[R]ather, special attention needs to be paid within existing programs to at-risk girls and, indeed, to any student at risk for any reason.''

The following components, for example, could help focus programs on the special needs of potential female dropouts, according to NASBE:

  • Instructional strategies that incorporate group activities and collaboration.
  • Remedial instruction in abstract spatial reasoning, to prepare girls for mathematics and science courses.
  • A mentor program that enables girls to identify with female role models who hold nontraditional jobs.
  • Adequate teacher training, to promote student-teacher interactions that are free of sex and race bias.
  • Counseling and related activities to enhance girls' self-esteem.

To order copies of the report or obtain information about costs, contact NASBE at 701 N. Fairfax Street, Suite 340, Alexandria, Va. 22314, (703) 684-4000.

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