There are Worse Things than Dropping Out of School

446665_41782525Craig Althof over at In Pursuit of Excellence emailed me the other day with an article from CNN about “dropout prevention programs” in the United States, including the America’s Promise Alliance’s program, which is chaired by Gen. Colin Powell.

The introduction to the article focuses on dropout prevention “foot soldiers” (a coordinator and a police officer) who knock on truants’ doors and insist that they show up to school.

Craig posted about this initiative (see link above) and I left him the following comment:

I have great respect for Gen. Powell’s effort and the mission America’s Promise is trying to accomplish. However, as a teacher and otherwise, I’ve seen the effect of trying to coerce students to stay in school when school is making them miserable.

I feel it would be more effective to diversify the school system and provide more options for students who have trouble within our traditional school structure. Our one-size-fits-all classrooms are usually only suitable for students who would do fine no matter what environment they were learning in. A variety of alternative public schools with different methodologies and programs, especially in low-income or troubled areas, might go some way toward solving this problem.

I also think there needs to be a shift in social attitudes supported by a change in the system, so that it is easier and more acceptable for students to leave school if they are unhappy and not learning, spend some time in the work force, and return to school whenever they are ready.

If disadvantaged students had a wider array of options when it came to their educational trajectory, I think many more of them would complete school.

My response to this subject is a personal one, and is not supported by any research or expertise in education policy. It stems in large part from intimate experience. My younger brother wanted very much to leave high school – he was desperately unhappy and not achieving. My parents, understandably, refused to allow it.

Would he have been better off if they had? It’s impossible to know, but it’s hard to imagine that things could have been much worse for him. He was depressed and reactive throughout his adolescence, his grades never improved no matter what efforts were made, and he managed to get into a lot of trouble, with both school authorities and the police. He eventually left school without my parents’ blessing, and spent many years floundering – his girlfriend got pregnant, he took a lot of drugs, and he hopped from one dead-end job to another, occasionally bilking our parents of large sums of money until they cut him off entirely.

What could he have done if he had left school earlier? When I think back to his teenage self, I like to imagine him up to his elbows in grease, apprenticing with an auto mechanic. If the world were different, maybe he could have begun training as an electrician right away – he eventually did just that, after completing his GED. He now seems to be living happily, with a wonderful family, and works contract jobs that, if not entirely stable, pay the bills and afford him satisfaction.

I am suspicious of “stay in school” dogma. I know it is well-intentioned, and I’ve no doubt that some young people benefit. But I wish more attention were paid to avenues other than traditional “school” that could be opened up to young people; I think a lot of suffering could be avoided if teenagers were supported in less conventional choices.

I have no doubt that others have strong opinions about this. I’d love to hear them.


19 thoughts on “There are Worse Things than Dropping Out of School

  1. Great post Siobhan! I have lots to say about this subject as well. England also faces these same issues, and does similar things to keep kids in school. I remember I had a year 5 student tell me that her father wanted to keep her home for school so he could go to jail and not have to take care of her & her 6 brothers anymore. When I asked her to further explain this, she giggled and just said, “Aw miss, if we don’t go to school, our father has to go to jail for keeping us out of school. Don’t you know that?”

    Uh, no actually, I didn’t know that.

    Anyway, I gather, or hope, that he was joking given that he was raising 7 kids with very little income if any. But still – the idea that kids think their parents go to jail for keeping kids home was an interesting one. This can’t possibly be the solution!

    Have a great weekend Siobhan!
    Here’s to one more week of school 🙂


  2. Victoria:
    Wow. Was the student right about that? Because it does seem like an extreme law. (And one that some clever kids might want to take advantage of; what teenager hasn’t fantasized about having their parents arrested and getting the house to themselves?!)


    1. I don’t know about in England, but in the US, keeping a student home from school is considered a form of abuse (specifically, educational neglect) and it is illegal. I’ve personally had to make three calls to social services about it for various students. Nothing’s ever happened on the calls I’ve made, as I assume social services has more egregious issues to deal with, but it’s possible.


  3. The Washington Post published an excellent article about the drop-out “problem” several months ago, which emphasizes the need for school systems to adopt a more flexible temporal approach to education. Rather than militarizing school attendance, we should allow students to drop out and then return to school later in life if they so choose, and, as importantly, provide them with the support and resources they need to do so. By steeping the issue in discourses of deviance and failure, we only exacerbate the problem and stigmatize those who do not conform to linear narratives of education.

    Anyway, you’ll find the article


  4. “By steeping the issue in discourses of deviance and failure, we only exacerbate the problem and stigmatize those who do not conform to linear narratives of education.”

    Thanks, Vila. I could not possibly have said this as well.


  5. When schools did away with vocational ed in favor of more traditional learning, I felt so sorry for my son. He had some of his best school days in vocational ed classrooms. Schools need to offer a variety of experiences because that’s what students will face in the ever changing job market. Some kids will never fit in with the traditional testing mode. Who can blame them for getting frustrated?


    1. Betty: Absolutely. Trying to jam everyone into the same box is not working. Why not diversify rather than making schools more and more narrow in focus? It makes no sense.


  6. I don’t know what to think-I spent the last year teaching “at risk” youth in an urban high school. I’ve seen it all. I’ve thought a lot about why kids didn’t succeed in my classroom(English), and I don’t think the problem is the school, or even necessarily the educational model-but-in general(and there are always exceptions)it has to do with their class and economic status, and whether or not their parents at home have resources to help them or themselves.
    While I agree that vocational classes should be available- high schools have already tried the model you’re talking about-many times-in the early 1900s and then again in the 30s and 40s. The reality is that the kids who were tracked into these vocational schools were mostly immigrants and then later, non whites. This understandably upset parents whose dreams for their children included university educations. For instance, Russian Immigrants rioted in New York because they felt their children would be cheated out of an education.
    Drop out rates are huge problem-and they’re also racialized-in California, I think the drop out rate for African American males is at 50%. Clearly there’s a problem. When you say things like “enter the workforce” I wonder what sort of job a 15 year boy can get?

    I don’t know, it’s like I recognize it’s a huge problem-I know being a teenager is a miserable time-but then I think about my students-and the reasons why they weren’t doing well had nothing to do with their potential or capability-it all came down to basic behavioral things-like did they miss a lot of school because they were suspended for fighting? Could they sit in their seat for ten minutes and complete an assignment? Could they follow basic directions when given? Did they have paper and a pen in class? And I think about these skills and then I think about any job that these kids will have in their future.


    1. Uberfrau:

      I totally agree that, as things stand right now, dropping out of school is not an option with a lot of potential. It’s going to require a major overhaul of social structures and attitudes before kids have real, viable options other than the traditional academic school system.

      I’ve been corresponding with someone who works as a teacher in Switzerland, and she says that there, students have the option, as early as ninth grade, of tracking into trade apprenticeship programs. They are paid (minimally, but on an increasing scale) for their work, spend one day a week in school, and graduate with a professional certificate that is well-recognized.

      One crucial factor, however, is that it is quite simple for them to reintegrate into the academic stream later, and eventually go to university if they want to. She describes one student of hers who went from being an apprentice watchmaker to going to technical college to eventually studying math at university.

      I wonder if a system like this might be more successful in Switzerland because of different attitudes toward class? I’m asking, because I have no idea – maybe someone can tell me. But I absolutely recognize what you’re describing, and I wonder if class and socioeconomic factors would be mitigated somewhat if there were more acceptance of and appreciation for non-academic skills within a broader educational system. I’ve written another post about these questions here:

      Thanks for your input on this! I know it’s a very complex question.


  7. I also wonder what’s it going on with the early graduation initiative that New Hampshire was supposed to be implementing. Anyone out there have any idea?


  8. Great post! My own family is offers an example of dropouts. My two brothers, both of higher then average intelligence, struggled throughout their whole school career. When they were of age to drop out (16 here) one did so. The other tried switching schools but ended up leaving as well. They spent a couple of years working low paid jobs and then decided to pursue careers in aircraft maintence. Years later they’re both making entirely too much money and get to travel all over North America and the world.

    My sister and I meanwhile stuck out school, graduated and floundered for years before finding out what we wanted to do. When we found that out it turned out our diplomas weren’t worth the bother after all. I’m a homeschooling SAHM and my sister pursued a degree for ECE as a mature student, a path that doesn’t require a diploma or GED.

    I often wish I’d had my brothers’ courage and simply walked away and got on with life.


    1. Dawn:
      It’s impossible to know “what might have been”…who knows how much your schooling helps you, especially now that you’re homeschooling your kids! And your sisters studies probably help her in all sorts of ways as well. If I hadn’t enjoyed school but had made it through, I don’t think I’d have any regrets. Your brothers’ examples show, however, that there are other ways to go about things, although they may not always be easy. Thanks for commenting!


  9. rather than the negative-but-classic phrase “dropping out”, how different might things be if students saw themselves as the architects of their own lives, including their own educations, and felt qualified and capable to choose how to get the knowledge they needed – whether from traditional schools, night schools, community open schools, apprenticeships, community colleges, self-study, etc. etc. – to accomplish their goals.


      1. i’m not sure a substitute phrase is required — i’d rather see attitudes change to the point where traditional in-school education is seen as an option for learning and not the only way to learn.

        so, rather than saying johnny “dropped out of school”, which is a pejorative, substitute “johnny is studying with this musician,” “johnny is teaching himself to program,” “johnny is apprenticed to that organic farmer,” and etc.

        attitudes are changing. it’s just a matter of time.


  10. I agree with you. I come from a sort of different background than the traditional go to school until you’re at least 21 culture, and I can testify that some young men need to work to feel like men. I like your mental picture of the mechanic, and I’m also thinking right now of a young man who wants to be an electrician. I LOVE school, but there is indeed more than one path to adulthood.


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