Journal Issue: America's High Schools
Number 1 Spring 2009
Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery
Authors: John H. Tyler Magnus Lofstrom
Who Drops Out - and Why?
Even the most optimistic assessments of national dropout rates suggest that far too many students are leaving school early. Economic, societal, and equity considerations all point to the need for interventions that could cause some of the roughly one million students who leave school each year to make a different decision. The importance of reducing the number of school dropouts is also reflected in NCLB, which requires states to incorporate graduation rates in their accountability systems for schools and school districts.
A first step in thinking systematically about how to affect dropout decisions is to have a good understanding of the characteristics and lives of students most at risk of leaving school early. That is, who are the students who tend to drop out, and what causes them to leave school? Although researchers know quite a bit about the characteristics of students who leave school, we know much less about the causal factors that lead to the school-leaving decision.
The great bulk of the research on why students leave school comes from post-dropout surveys and interviews of students who have left school. A recent example is "The Silent Epidemic," a study of dropouts supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that interviewed 467 sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old dropouts across the nation.20 Other research relies on student responses to questions posed in data sets such as the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.21 Not surprisingly, students report a variety of reasons for leaving school early, and studies consistently find that a complex set of relationships between student, family, school, and community factors are linked with the dropout decision. Importantly, a substantial body of research suggests that the decision to drop out is...