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How can we lower the student drop-out rate?

European Commission

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama proposed something radical, that dropping out of high school no longer be allowed. But that might be complicated. Every school district has tried numerous solutions to the dropout dilemma without success.

The problem prompted Russell Rumberger to write a book called Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It. Rumberger is director of the California Dropout Research Project, and he currently serves as provost in the Office of the President at the University of California. He recently talked about his theory that high schools need to promote alternatives to college – and that some people might be better served not getting a higher education at all. KALW's Ben Trefny sat down with Youth Radio’s Robyn Gee to discuss this idea of education.

ROBYN GEE: Just last week I was in the middle school in the city of Richmond speaking with the counselor there who is in charge of discipline, and he was telling me that at their school, they have adopted a policy where right at the bell teachers lock their doors and any student in the hallway at that time is rounded-up and brought to the office and given a consequence. And you know, warning, detention, one-and-a-half hour detention, and then this is suspension. So one day if the student is tardy four times, he can be suspended from school. And a number of suspensions eventually leads to expulsion. Research shows that just from the first time you are suspended, you are more likely to drop out of school in general.

BEN TREFNY: The research of Russell Rumberger, the Provost of the Office of the President of the University of California, on drop-outs led him to believe that schools in America need to promote alternative pathways. There needs to be something aside from the strict academic path.

RUSSELL RUMBERGER: One of the things we find in drop-out research is that drop-outers report that “nobody cared that I wasn't attending the school, nobody showed any interest in the fact that I was struggling, so I kind of became invisible when I left and nobody even knew I was gone." So, these kind of psychological variables are very important and they can be promoted by many different activities. In my view, that could be anything that can get a student to walk in the door. Maybe a student wants to be there if he or she is very active in student government or very active on a sports team. We want to create schools where not only the student wants to be there but there is an adult there that cares whether there is student or not.

TREFNY: Rumberger is talking about finding whatever it is that strikes somebody. It's not necessarily academics; it's not necessarily the school environment. Even something social. What do you make out of what he says? Especially if something like this comes from somebody who works in academia.

GEE: Yes, it's kind of surprising and unexpected. By forcing all students on to a college-bound track we are ignoring a lot of other options that can lead to gainful employment. He mentioned to us that in 2018, still a third of the jobs will not require a college degree. And so in general schools should be more jobs-focused.

TREFNY: Russell Rumberger has some thoughts on what should define success:

RUMBERGER: We want to try to make every kid successful in something. If we define success narrowly by saying how well can we do an AP test, math test, or some kind of other academic test and that's the only way we judge success, then the students that have the ability to work with others, ones that can design things, that know how to cook of fix cars – none of those skills are valued. But if we could say that everybody should have something they can master and demonstrate mastery of whatever there is, then there is this notion that students will develop a sense of confidence.

TREFNY: Robin, do you have any other insights in the drop-out dilemma?

GEE: Yes, before I started working at Youth Radio I was a middle school teacher in San Francisco for couple of years. I really think that Rumberger's point about making the curriculum engaging is super important. When I was teaching, there were a core group of maybe 30 students in the school who were constantly tardy or absent, or suspended, or in detention, or in the office almost the entire day. And this issue of how do we reach those students, finding options that's going to work for those students, and maybe taking the emphasis off of directing everyone to college if that's not relevant to them at all, is a good idea.

TREFNY: Here is how Rumberger puts his words in some practicable applications:

RUMBERGER: In academic areas you might want to teach someone how to problem solve. Let's say, to create a robot would be one example. But to actually build a robot you have to have other skills, you have to know how to work with materials for example. Putting the ideas and the concepts that an academic course may help teach students about, but they wouldn't actually know how to build it. So, why have that separate? Why not have them do both so that students are actually developing practical skills, like how to work with their hands and how to actually make something.

TREFNY: What would happen for schools that bring together the model that Rumberger is talking about, Robin?

GEE: Ideally, Rumberger envisions schools that have kind of integrated courses, courses with maybe two instructors: one with industry experience and one with academic experience. There are high schools that have tried this and experimented with this in Stockton. There is an Engineering and Technical Academy that actually partnered with trade unions. Basically, trade unions were not seeing the kind of experience in job-ready young people that they needed to employ. And so they partnered with the school and worked on and developed a curriculum that prepared students directly to be employed by the businesses in the neighboring area.

TREFNY: Has there been enough time to tell whether this is impacting their drop-out rate?

GEE: That's an interesting question. We are looking into that.


Ben handles daily operations in the news department, overseeing the editorial and sound engineering teams, delivering daily newscasts, producing the nightly news and culture show Crosscurrents, and supervising special projects including KALW's Audio Academy training program.