What do Cameron Diaz, Johnny Depp, and Quentin Tarantino have in common? Each of these extremely successful individuals dropped out of high school. While these three people went on to become extremely wealthy and respected for their talent, that is not the case for most students who leave high school prior to graduating. According to current research, today’s high school dropouts are more likely to live below the poverty line and have a shorter life expectancy than their peers who complete high school. Millions of dollars have been spent promoting programs to keep kids in school, yet students continue to seek alternate pathways to a high school credential. With so many dropout prevention programs in place, why do students continue to drop out?

Current research is unveiling a myriad of problems faced by 21st-century high school students not experienced in previous generations. Studies have found that dropping out of high school is not a spontaneous decision, but a process that can begin as early as preschool. As children grow from infancy to age 5, the fundamental skills for learning are established. In 2007, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University found that if parents do not—or cannot—provide a home environment that encourages learning, the child will enter school without skills that other children possess, thus putting them at a disadvantage before their academic journey has even begun. It is a widely accepted belief that a child born to undereducated parents, raised in a stressful home environment, and struggling to have basic needs met has a much higher probability of dropping out of high school.

As the relationship between childhood poverty and dropping out has become clear, the correlation between student achievement and school-population composition is gaining attention with educational researchers. Nearly 40 years ago, researcher James Coleman found that “a student’s achievement is more highly related to the characteristics of other students in the school than any other school characteristic.” Disadvantaged communities influence child and adolescent development through their lack of resources (playgrounds and parks, after-school programs) or negative peer influences. For instance, students living in poor communities are more likely to have dropouts as friends, which increases the likelihood of them dropping out of school.

School Climate and Dropout Rates

Do school characteristics contribute to a student’s decision to drop out of high school? An investigation of the literature answers a resounding “yes” to this question. The relationship between the school climate and dropout rate is so close that Bob Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher, dubbed schools with high dropout rates “dropout factories.” According to Balfanz, a “dropout factory” high school is identified as one in which “60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. That description fits more than 1 in 10 high schools across America.” Equity in funding for schools in impoverished neighborhoods still lags behind those in more affluent areas. Without the proper funding to ensure high-quality teachers, engaging academic programs, and a rich offering of extracurricular activities, high schools in poor communities will continue to have higher dropout rates. The implication of these findings for many of the nation’s students is that attending school in their own neighborhood can actually hinder them from graduating.

In a study on school characteristics related to dropout rates, researchers noted that the way school administrators address undesirable student behaviors relates strongly to dropout rates. Schools that rely on out-of-school suspension may inadvertently be perpetuating increased dropout rates. Those schools having alternative forms of punishment that do not remove the student from the learning environment have much lower dropout rates.

The schools with the highest dropout rates also have teachers and administrators with the fewest years of experience and educational attainment. In an article titled “School Characteristics Related to High School Dropout Rates,” researchers found that “Administrators in the HDOS [high dropout school] had an average of four years’ experience compared to nine years’ experience for the LDOS [low dropout school] administrators.” Inexperience in dealing with highly volatile student populations and ineffective teachers can lead to a school environment riddled with violence and high dropout rates. These schools also have higher teacher turnover rates. According to a study done by Christine Christle of the University of South Carolina, “teacher-based forms of social capital reduce the probability of dropping out by half. Teachers are the most frequently encountered role models outside of the family, and the findings from the present study suggest that teacher behaviors and characteristics have a great deal of influence on student outcomes.” Therefore, it is crucial for high-dropout schools to attract and retain highly qualified teachers in order to encourage students to stay in school.

Mixed Results

Since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” by the U.S. Department of Education in 1983, school districts across the nation have implemented a wide variety of programs aimed at reducing the dropout rate. Do they work? According to the literature, the answer is unclear. In some situations, dropout prevention strategies are highly successful. However, there is no one correct strategy. What works for one student population may not be a good fit for others. The key to developing dropout prevention strategies lies in knowing the students and their needs in order to reach graduation. For most dropout strategies, two foundations are necessary before the strategies can be effective. First, schools need to know what their students need; and second, schools must be willing to put human and financial capital into building programs that work.

Early intervention is also gaining attention as a means of dropout prevention. As increasing information is available concerning the early signs of a potential dropout, school districts are opting to begin interventions at the elementary level. Using early literacy and math interventions with students who enter school performing at lower academic levels than their peers can offset the detrimental effects of academic failure later in the student’s school career. After third grade, children are no longer learning to read, but are now reading to learn. These early interventions could ease the frustration and humiliation felt by many students who fall behind their peers and remain at a disadvantage as they continue through school. By eliminating this pressure, students could be successful in school and remain engaged through graduation.

So, what can principals do to deal with the vexing issue of dropouts? While there are no magic bullets, early intervention, data collection, and development of at-risk guidelines are key.

Melinda Bowers, EdS, is coordinator of adult education instruction at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.

Making It Work

Recommendations for Principals to Prevent Dropout

  • Start at the elementary level to implement strategies that begin identifying at-risk students when they enter school in kindergarten. Provide interventions based on the needs and culture of the community.
  • Gather data continually on individual student behaviors and academic performance. Work with classroom teachers and other support staff to propose interventions when dropout indicators first appear.
  • Develop programs to provide at-risk students with adult mentors. Mentors can advocate on a student’s behalf, while also serving as a trustworthy confidant.
  • Work with faculty and staff to offer extracurricular activities designed to incorporate as many students as possible. This strengthens the bonds of attachment between the student and the school.
  • Involve the community, especially in high-poverty areas. Develop programs and sponsored events to include community members. This can strengthen the bond of attachment between the school and the community, thus reinforcing the idea that school is a place where students feel welcome and wanted.