Dropouts In A High School

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The American daily life is always changing. In the 1970s men dropping out of high school were still able to support their families and make a decent living. These days, dropping out of high school is practically economic suicide. The history of high school dropouts in America at the beginning of the twentieth century, was the dropping out rate was estimated to be hovering around 90 per cent (Schargel & Smink, 2001, p. 4). In 1983, A Nation at Risk, a report from The National Commission on Excellence in Education was published. The authors called for education reform in America, stating that it would be impossible for the United States to continue to be economically competitive in a rapidly advancing and changing world. The report called for immediate action raising student achievement and high school graduation rates through state and federal reforms.

Why is High School Dropout a Problem?

The issue of students failing to complete high school is not a new one; however the implications and complications of dropping out have increased. While salaries in most fields have risen, salaries for dropouts have actually declined over the last fifteen years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2011), high school dropouts earned an average of $21,023 annually; the annual salary for someone with a high school diploma was $31,283. With the advent of the information age, technology and an increased cost of living, jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree were projected to grow by 25% while jobs that need only a high school diploma were estimated to barely grow by 9% (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2003). This information is driving schools across the nation to find methods or strategies to increase retention of their high school students, thereby reducing their dropout rates.

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The concern about students dropping out is a national issue. In a study done in 2001, Kaufman reported 20 per cent of students who began high school did not complete their education. The number of younger students, those still in junior high school, who did not complete their high school education, was also increasing (Kaufman, Naomi Alt, & Chapman, 2001). Despite high school completion being an issue across the country, the U.S. Department of Education has not created an overarching program for dropouts as it is against their charter. According to Public Law 96-88, The U.S Department of Education was created to support the states, parents and private organizations in their efforts to create a strong, effective education system, not to gain additional power, dictate curricula or school policy (National Institute of Health, 2011). Each state has its own Board of Education and beyond conforming to certain federal requirements, such as the No Child Left behind Act, these boards are able to govern the districts in their respective states autonomously.

There is no single answer or cure for keeping students in school but the research suggests that giving students a reason to stay can help (Finn & Rock, 1997). The reason could be that they are engaged by the curriculum, they see the applicability of their education to their future, they have support from family or friends in completing their education, or they become convinced of the personal cost and consequences of dropping out. This has been a discussion of the weak ties brought to the classroom and the increased self-efficacy they encouraged should increase the engagement of the students in their school experience.

The Practices of Defining High School Dropouts

If students are able to earn better grades and learn more, they are more likely to be successful. A mentor is defined as a leader or coach and typically signifies a one-to-one relationship. While the literature around mentoring continues to grow, Lasley concluded that “mentoring is considered to be among the most effective methods for helping young people to increase their self-esteem and to reach their potential” (Buell, 2004, p. 57). As self-esteem is enhanced, students’ affective, behavioural and psychological engagement will increase, increasing their overall engagement with school. As students become more engaged, they realize the benefits of completing their education. This may be explained with the weak tie theory Granovetter (1973) proposed whereby people are able to increase their outreach through those they know, not very well, because these contacts will be connected to people outside of the individual’s regular social circle. These weak ties can bring resources to bear that differ from those the individual normally has available. For students, the mentor can bring information and knowledge outside of the student’s normal circle as well as connections to business and the community that may not have been available previously.

We need a well-educated citizenry with the proper skills to contribute to the economy. However, high academic standards itself will not “fix” the issue. Along with higher academic standards are community involvement, parent engagement, and equitable resources for all students. There is no magic one size fits all solution to this complex crisis in American high schools, but the four components – higher academic standards, community involvement, parent engagement, and equitable resources for all students – are necessary for any high school reform to succeed. With the economic recession and the federal unemployment rate at above nine per cent, we need our elected leaders to take action on this issue. We cannot afford to support inaction.


  1. Alliance for Excellent Education. (2003, November). The impact of education on: Poverty & homelessness (Issue Brief). Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Buell, C. (2004). Models of mentoring in communication. Communication Education, 53, 56-73.
  3. Finn, J. D., & Rock, D. A. (1997). Academic success among students at risk for school failure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 221-234
  4. Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 1, 201-233.
  5. Kaufman, P., Naomi Alt, M., & Chapman, C. D. (2001). U.S. Department of Education. Dropout rates in the United States: 2000.
  6. Schargel, F. P. (2004). Who drops out and why? In J. Smink & F. P. Schargel (Eds.), Helping students graduate: A strategic approach to dropout prevention (pp. 29-49). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
  7. U.S. Census Bureau, (2011). Statistical abstract of the United States. U.S. Census Bureau web site http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/education.htm


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