College & Workforce Readiness

Dropouts: A Blame Game?

By Catherine Gewertz — June 04, 2009 2 min read
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Plenty of finger-pointing and low expectations in a new report on teachers’ and principals’ views of the dropout crisis.

When asked who is chiefly responsible for students dropping out, three-quarters of teachers and principals named the students themselves, and nearly that many named parents. Fewer than 30 percent said that they or their school system, society, or elected officials bore most or all of the responsibility for students’ leaving school.

Six in 10 teachers and nearly half of principals said that lack of support at home was a key reason that kids drop out; they cited that reason far more than absenteeism, hanging out with kids who aren’t interested in school, being unprepared for high school, or boredom.

In fact, this report carries their very-decisive response to the voices of the dropouts themselves, captured in a widely cited 2006 study by the same organization, Civic Enterprises.

In the 2006 study, “Silent Epidemic,” two-thirds of the dropouts interviewed said that they would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them. Nearly half cited boring classes as a key reason for dropping out, and seven in 10 cited lack of motivation. (See the story I wrote about that report here.)

Teachers and principals have a different view. In today’s report, four in 10 teachers said they thought teenagers were making excuses for their own poor work when they say boredom is a main reason for leaving high school. Three-quarters of teachers and two-thirds of principals said they didn’t think students would work harder if more were demanded of them.

The focus groups turned up some pretty pointed comments about students. A Cleveland science teacher said that “kids no longer are really excited about learning.” Other teachers cited laziness and a “poor work ethic.” Another said that “kids are just spoiled now by having video games and everything be so entertaining.”

Everyone agreed that better preparation for high school could have made a difference. But teachers and principals (six in 10) cited that more often than the kids did (45 percent).

Teachers and principals voiced strong support for various approaches to addressing the dropout problem, with “alternate learning environments” getting the strongest support. Most also support expanding college-level learning opportunities. But barely half or less gave their support to a range of other ideas offered by those who did the study, including creating individualized graduation plans.

What do teachers and principals think will really work in turning around the dropout problem? And will their voices be heard as new policy is made during a year with such an intense focus on high schools?

A statement issued today by the American Federation of Teachers said that all educators must have “high expectations” for students‐something that was decidedly not reflected in the new report. But the union said that the “expectations gap” illustrated in the report doesn’t reflect a belief that students can’t learn, but rather a recognition of “the numerous barriers to achievement placed between students and educators and their goals.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.