Are school retention rates really the problem?

It is generally accepted that students who stay on longer at school and into college improve their employment outcomes and life chances. Dropping out not only damages a student’s prospects, but reflects badly on the school. Many educationalists are therefore very interested in maximising retention rates through school and into college.

The demographics of dropping out

Statistics about retention reveal that students from various minority groups are more likely to drop out. The following figures, taken from Washington State’s (2015) Graduation and Drop Out Statistics Annual Report, summarises the percentages of students who, after starting together five years ago, graduated in 2015:

American Indian 58.0%
Asian 87.6%
Pacific Islander 67.5%
Black 71.4%
Hispanic 70.8%
White 82.2%
Two or More Races 80.0%
Special Education 62.8%
Limited English 59.6%
Low Income 69.7%
Migrant 67.1%
504 Plan 79.8%
Homeless 51.9%
Foster Care 42.5%
Female 83.1%
Male 76.7%

The report tried to identify the reasons why students dropped out – unfortunately exit surveys are always plagued with low response rates, and Washington State is no exception. For more than 50% of the students the reason is unknown. Given the statistics are bordering on unreliable, the three biggest reasons cited were:

Attended School 4 Years, Did Not Graduate 4.2%
School Not for Me, Chose to Stay Home 7.2%
Lacked Progress or Poor Grades 6.4%

There was also an unconfirmed 25% of dropouts who transferred schools.

The statistics from Washington State do not diverge much from the average, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Over the years there has been an incremental increase in retention rates, but there are also identifiable differences for different demographics.

Can retention be solved by more courses?

Part of the challenge schools face, particularly smaller schools, is their ability to offer the wide range of courses that will attract students to stay in school.

A solution proposed in the Australian state of Tasmania is to offer multi-campus schools, so that a networked group of schools can together offer a broader range of subjects. It is not yet clear whether the result would be a greater amount of travel for students between the networked schools. The burden of educational miles is another barrier to successful study.

But is the problem really about lack of course choice? At best, this approach needs to work in tandem with a variety of others in the classroom and in the community. It doesn’t seem to address which students are dropping out, and why they are doing it.

Early intervention

Joan Forman and Mary Ellen Sanders, project coordinators of Naperville, Il District 203’s early intervention program “Project Leap,” offer a more holistic approach to improving retention, both more proactive and personalised. They promote an approach involving:

  • intensify learning,
  • provide professional development to assure skilled teachers,
  • expand learning options,
  • assess students in a manner to assist teachers, and
  • intervene in time to arrest poor performance.

Such combined approaches can combat a ‘failure cycle’ that some students fall into, often compounded by the negative feedback they get from competency testing or being held back a year – or indeed, being promoted when they shouldn’t be. The solution is early intervention, which requires teacher training and the other principles Forman and Sander mention.

Are retention rates really the issue?

Like so many educational issues, policy makers and observers find it easy to grab hold of an issue that can be statistically summarised. However, retention rates are the symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. If we offered supportive and tailored education opportunities to our diverse body of students, fewer of them would want to walk away.

But more than this, the retention problem is a function of our old-fashioned thinking about education. Given the high pace of change, schools need to develop humans who embrace life-long learning. The most important job of school becomes learning how to learn – proactively, independently, critically and enthusiastically.

A life-long learner explodes her learning beyond her educational institution. Educational policy hasn’t caught up with what elearning really means, and while elearning is not perfect, it’s huge and here to stay.

If we lived in a community of proactive life-long learners, institutional retention rates would be irrelevant. Learning would be ubiquitous and decentralised, and the main job of formal education would be in teaching learners how to learn. Perhaps ‘school’ would be a community activity …

The question is, how do we get there?

Jenny Weight
English consultant and graphic novelist
Since leaving the higher education sector I’ve been focussed on thinking about education more holistically – I’m particularly interested in the interface between education and media, but I want to understand better how we can bring our traditional educational institutions to embrace the possibilities that the network and media are opening up. We need to reinvent education to suit the nature of our working lives, and our need to engage in routine lifelong learning. I use my research and writing skills to explore these issues. I consult on education issues and assist postgraduate students with their theses.

As an artist, my new project is Mayor, a graphic novel set in thirteenth century Spain. You can find out more about these activities in my blog: geniwate.com.

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Are school retention rates really the problem?
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Are school retention rates really the problem?
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Article explores some of the issues and proposed solutions to K-12 retention rates, then wonders whether, in a world of ubiquitous, decentralised and life-long learning, retention is really the problem.
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Virtually English
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