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March 08, 2006

reasons for dropping out of high school

My friends at Civic Enterprises recently released a report, funded by the Gates Foundation, on high school drop-outs. It's based on a survey of 467 recent drop-outs plus focus groups. This research addresses the very serious problem that one third of all American students, and half of all African American and Latino youth, withdraw before they receive high school diplomas. The consequences are very dire, as the report explains. For instance, drop-outs are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those with high school diplomas; they are also sicker and poorer.

Some of the survey results are at least somewhat surprising. For example, while about one third of the drop-outs had been struggling academically, 70 percent were confident that they could have graduated. Many said that school was too easy and that they would have worked harder if more had been asked of them. They complained about boredom in class and the feeling that course content was irrelevant.

It is possible for students to find a worthy topic boring and irrelevant. However, I think we should at least consider increasing the rigor of school for some students who are at risk of dropping out because they feel unchallenged. Of course, the point is not to make school harder, but to make it more intellectually challenging. This wouldn't work for all kids (not for the roughly 35 percent who had trouble keeping up or passing). However, as the report wisely says, there should be different schools and curricula for different students--and there's a substantial group that needs more of a challenge, along with appropriate guidance and support. (This guidance must include teachers who know them individually--something that many say they lacked.)

A substantial group of drop-outs (38 percent) complained of "too much freedom." I have argued that we give young people too much choice among courses, extracurriculars, and social networks. The stakes are too high, and the kids who lack family support are prone to make bad decisions. However, that's not what "too much freedom" means in the new report. The drop-outs complain that they were excessively free not to attend class or indeed to withdraw from school. Almost all conveyed "great remorse for having left school and expressed strong interest in re-entering school with students of their own age."

Posted by peterlevine at March 8, 2006 08:26 PM

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