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Stopping Dropping Out!

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Efforts to prevent students from dropping out of school should begin when children start school, not when they're about to leave it, says Franklin P. Schargel, one of the authors of Strategies to Help Solve Our School Dropout Problem. According to Schargel and co-author Jay Smink, educators, parents, and the community need to work together to reduce the school dropout rate. Included: Fifteen effective strategies for reducing the number of school dropouts.

Franklin P. Schargel, one of the authors of Strategies to Help Solve Our School Dropout Problem, is chairman-elect of the Education Division of the American Society of Quality. A former teacher and assistant principal, Schargel also served on the Guidelines Development Committee for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in Education and, for two years, was an examiner for the Baldrige award. Dr. Jay Smink, the book's co-author, is the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center.

Education World: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing dropout prevention strategies in this country?

Franklin P. Schargel: A variety of obstacles prevent implementation of dropout prevention strategies -- and a number of ways exist to overcome them.

Tips from the Experts

Schargel and Smink say that schools should employ these 15 educational strategies to help prevent students from dropping out:
* Mentor and tutor students.
* Provide service learning: Connect community service projects with classroom learning.
* Provide alternative programs.
* Provide after-school and summer enhancement programs.
* Stress early childhood education.
* Increase family involvement in education.
* Offer intensive reading and writing programs.
* Provide professional development for teachers who work with at-risk students.
* Make schools receptive to students' different learning styles.
* Utilize instructional technology.
* Customize learning.
* Review school system policies and practices.
* Involve the community in the schools.
* Offer career education and workforce readiness programs.
* Offer conflict resolution and violence prevention programs.

Note: The U.S. Department of Education now uses these strategies as their official dropout prevention strategies. See the Department's Dropout Prevention page.

Educators -- and others -- believe that dropping out of school is a high school problem. In fact, there's no such thing as a high school dropout! Dropping out of school is not an event; it's a process -- and data indicates that that process begins as early as third grade. According to the United States Department of Education, 8.6 percent of school dropouts occur in middle school. Educators must start in elementary school to identify students who are having difficulty achieving success -- and build safety nets into the learning process for those students.

Parents need to be drawn early into the learning process, and schools need to make continuing efforts to involve parents in their children's learning. This can become a major challenge; many parents are working more than one job and the single-parent family is the norm in America.

Many schools and school districts are reluctant to admit they have a dropout problem. Although inner-city school districts often have a horrendous problem, no school community is exempt. Accepting any number of school dropouts -- even small numbers -- is a mistake. In the 21st century, as our society becomes more complex and more dependent on information, knowledge, and technology, a school dropout will have a difficult -- if not an impossible -- time finding work.

We need to change the teacher-learning paradigm. Teachers must become "enablers," enabling children to obtain information and turn it into a usable resource -- knowledge. We must get away from the concept of only teaching information. Information is expanding exponentially at a rate that, according to Hewlett Packard, is doubling every two and a half years. Students must have a core of information. But continuing to teach and test only information is, in my opinion, a mistake.

Wherever I travel, I hear that education, especially education of children at risk, is expensive. I acknowledge that a major portion of local and state budgets go for education, but few people measure the cost of incarceration. Data from the United States Department of Corrections indicates that 82 percent of prisoners are school dropouts. It's not education that's expensive, it's the lack of education! "Education is a one-time cost, ignorance is a lifetime expenditure."

Schools need to be as globally competitive as businesses are. Schools frequently compare themselves to the school down the street or across town, but school graduates don't compete for employment with the best people in a city. They compete against the world's best. Cities compete for industry by saying that their schools are better than schools in another city; they should be saying that their schools are among the best in the world. The greatest economic stimulus to an area is a high graduation rate and a low dropout rate.

EW: Among the factors that contribute to students' dropping out of school, which are the hardest to address?

Schargel: The most prominent contributing factors are

  • Low expectations for poor and minority students. If we really believe that "all children can learn" and that "no child should be left behind," we need to realize that not all children learn in the same way and at the same pace. Some children face obstacles that challenge the best educators and may take longer to achieve the same goals as children who are less challenged. We need to change the way we look at schools and the way they function. We may need to keep schools open late in the evening so children have a safe environment in which to do homework or access computers. We may need to offer remediation on Saturday or Sunday. No child has ever risen to low expectations.
  • A passive learning process. Outside school, students are actively involved in a variety of activities, including sports, lessons, video games, and more. In school, however, we expect them to be passive recipients of learning. A disconnect exists between what happens in school and what happens outside school. We need to change the teaching-learning process.
  • A lack of involvement by outside groups and agencies. A recently released U.S. Department of Education survey indicates that, between the ages of five and 18, 91 percent of a child's life takes place outside school. We must involve parents and the business community in children's education. Educators recognize that as a child progresses through the educational system, parental involvement declines. We need to develop strategies that maintain -- or even increase -- parental involvement. We know that pre-teens and teenagers face increasing challenges, including drugs, gangs, and sexual temptations. If educators are to succeed, it's critical that we have the active support and involvement of parents. The community needs to be drawn into schools as well -- and not solely as a source of funding. The business community can add the fourth "r" -- relevance -- to what is being taught in school.

EW: What are some common misperceptions about students who drop out?

Schargel: If we asked people to close their eyes and identify the typical dropout, they would fail to confirm the data that has been collected. Most dropouts, by number, are Caucasian because most students are Caucasian. Many dropouts come from stable families, have passing grades, and have never been pregnant or a parent. Almost 17 percent drop out in their senior year of high school. In other words, with fewer than nine months of school to complete, these students say by their actions that it's not worth it to stay in school and graduate. When asked why they left school, 65 percent of school dropouts said they were bored.

EW: What are some characteristics of effective dropout prevention programs?

Schargel: Because the causes of dropping out are so diverse, the strategies for keeping students in school also need to be diverse. That's one oreason we identify a wide variety of strategies. In my travels, I've spoken to people who run alternative schools, people who work in recovery programs to reclaim existing dropouts, and people involved in a variety of dropout prevention programs. The most successful programs use a wide variety of strategies -- from intensive reading and writing programs to service learning and mentoring programs. The greatest success is achieved by those who use all the strategies we have identified.

EW: How do you think the No Child Left Behind Act addresses the dropout problem?

Schargel: The No Child Left Behind Act does both positive and negative things. First, and most important, it increases federal funding. Second, it asks schools and programs for measured, documented, data-driven success, not merely anecdotal evidence. On the negative side, NCLB emphasizes and stresses high-stakes, "gate" testing (closing the promotional gate on those students who do not master the material in a given period of time.) We know from available data that retaining students who fail tests increases by 20 to 90 percent the likelihood that they'll drop out. We also know that social promotion doesn't work. We need to build safety nets into existing processes, to ensure that children learn early in their school careers. Then we need to maintain these safety nets so we can prevent failure in those children who initially fail to achieve. We know enough about brain research to recognize that children learn in a variety of ways, at their own pace; we need to build that knowledge into the system. Expecting all children to achieve the same level of success in a fixed amount of time dooms some students to fail.

Finally, most of the funding for dropout prevention is under Title I, which funds programs for low-income students -- as if there aren't any middle- or high-income students at risk!

EW: How do you think the assessment component of the No Child Left Behind Act will affect the dropout rate?

Schargel: Jay Smink, co-author of Strategies to Help Solve Our School Dropout Problem, is an expert on school dropouts. Dr. Smink and the National Dropout Prevention Center have been studying this problem since 1987. We believe that high-stakes testing -- and the resulting retentions -- will cause the dropout problem to increase by 50 percent in the next five years. If that takes place, it won't be only students who are at risk -- it will be society.

This e-interview with Franklin P. Schargel is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

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