Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social History of School Failure
reviewed by Harvey Kantor - 1997
Title: Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social History of School Failure
Author(s): Sherman Dorn
Publisher: Praeger Publications, Westport
ISBN: 0275951758, Pages: , Year: 1996
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The subtitle of Sherman Dorn's new book on the history of school dropouts is somewhat misleading. Strictly speaking, it is not an institutional and social history of school failure. Except for one chapter on long-term demographic trends, the book does not explore historical patterns of school attendance, promotion, and graduation among different groups of students. Nor, as Dorn himself acknowledges at the outset, does the book examine the kinds of school practices or the social and economic conditions around schools that made for school failure and led some students to drop out. That would be a valuable study, but it still awaits its historian. Instead, Dorn explores another set of equally interesting questions. Why, he asks, have we come to view dropping out as a social problem in the first place? In particular, why has dropping out come to be seen as a crisis issue, despite steady growth in the proportion of students graduating from high school? And how have our views of this problem affected the way we have tried to solve it?
At first glance, the answers to these questions seem obvious. Today, most social observers view dropping out as a problem because they believe that leaving high school without a diploma has adverse economic consequences both for the individual and for society at large. But Dorn argues that public concern about dropping out is better understood as an "age related historical development" (p. 6), specifically our expectations for high school graduation. Although dropouts today do indeed face bleak economic prospects, he points out, arguments about the adverse economic consequences of early school leaving first surfaced early in the twentieth century, long before dropping out was viewed as a discrete social problem. This did not occur, he says, until the 1960s, when high school graduation had become the normal and expected experience for most teenagers, thereby focusing increased attention on those who dropped out even though they constituted "a shrinking proportion of successive birth cohorts" (p. 6).
Dorn makes a compelling case for this view. But his argument that dropping out is an age-related development that became a major social issue only in the 1960s is difficult to demonstrate. He points to an increase in the number of articles with "dropout" in the title to substantiate his claim about the appearance of the dropout problem in the 1960s. For the most part, however, he infers his argument about age norms from the expansion of attendance and graduation itself. This helps explain why attendance and graduation became the expected experience for most teenagers, but it does not explain why deviation from it became the subject of such public concern. Although Dorn does not emphasize the point, his evidence suggests that equally important was the growing belief that dropping out was linked to unemployment, crime, and delinquency and that keeping dropouts in school might solve these problems by teaching them how to behave.
Joseph Kett, James Gilbert, and others have observed that these concerns were rooted in changes in the way educators and social commentators viewed the causes of dropping out.1 Early in the twentieth century, according to Kett, most educators viewed dropping out as a personal misfortune that would create individual hardship. But, despite periodic rumblings about the dangers of idle youth, prior to World War II they did not devote much attention to it, partly because they viewed it as an economic necessity they could do little about and partly because they had little interest in inducing unmotivated youth to remain. By the 1950s and early 1960s, however, they had begun to think of dropping out as a form of psychosocial alienation rather than as an economic necessity. As a result, Kett points out, they became more concerned about those who left, since from this perspective school leaving (and delinquency) not only had adverse economic consequences for those who dropped out but represented a form of disaffiliation that threatened society itself and thus merited public attention.
One response to this concern was a heightened interest in dropout prevention programs, particularly in urban school systems. But Dorn argues persuasively that these programs rarely constituted a major effort to hold youth in school. Nor did they produce changes in school policies that annually pushed out thousands of students before they graduated. In a first-rate chapter on dropout programs in New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, he demonstrates that most dropout programs were much too small, isolated, and poorly funded to make much of a dent in the dropout problem. Even more important, he shows that none of the widely touted dropout programs made much change in the kinds of school practices or policies-such as suspensions, grade retention, special education placement, and the removal of pregnant students from classes-that pushed students out of school or denied them access to educational services in the first place. Despite all the talk about dropout prevention, Dorn points out, educators insisted on retaining the right to place, suspend, and expel students until court decisions in the 1970s forced them to explicitly recognize the rights of students to an education.
Dorn attributes this gap between policy and practice partly to bureaucratic intransigence. But it also reflects more ambivalence toward the ideal of universal secondary education than the rhetoric about the dangers of dropping out appears to allow. This was especially evident early in the century when even many of those who in principle believed in the value of universal attendance hedged their commitment with reservations. As Michelle Fine's work on dropouts makes clear, however, this ambivalence about universal attendance is not just a thing of the past.2 On the contrary, today, as well, many educators continue to push poor and minority students out of school even while, as Dorn puts it, "presumably trying to eliminate dropping out" (p. 110).
Dorn might have drawn out this ambivalence by paying more attention to the processes by which the dropout problem came to national attention, particularly by specifying who pushed the idea that dropping out was a pressing problem. At the outset he argues that it was chiefly the work of educators and policymakers who had a professional stake in the issue. But there were sharp differences in attitudes between national policymakers and local school officials that he sometimes overlooks.3 He points mainly to statements by policymakers, such as those on national commissions, to document his argument that expectations for universal attendance have become widespread. But his evidence suggests that local officials have been much less committed to this goal. Consequently, while national policymakers identified dropping out as a pressing social problem and pushed for programs to keep dropouts in school, the implementation of those programs was often resisted by local officials who had little interest in making the changes necessary for them to succeed.
In the end, however, this gap between policy and practice is not due simply to the indifference of local school officials. More fundamentally, it symbolizes the shortcomings of educators' beliefs in equality of educational opportunity. As high school attendance expanded, Dorn points out, educators supplemented older notions of the meritocratic high school with the idea that secondary education should help adolescents adjust to the demands of modern life. But since they never abandoned their commitment to social efficiency, high schools did not become truly egalitarian institutions. Instead, they were transformed into warehousing and certification agencies, designed to hold youth out of the labor market at the same time that they adjusted them to their place in the class structure. As a result, they continued to sort and select students, as well as push them out of school, even though these policies and practices meant that their commitment to ending the dropout problem would remain a hollow one. Indeed, Dorn concludes that until we view dropping out as an issue of educational inequality rather than as a problem of inadequate socialization, the real roots of the problem will be left untouched.
There are lots of difficulties with the way Dorn handles many of these themes. Not only does his argument about the novelty of the dropout problem in the 1960s tend to downplay continuities and exaggerate differences with the past. As noted above, he also overlooks differences between national policymakers and local school officials that help account for the gaps between policy and practice that he documents. Moreover, his argument about age norms is, in the end, long on assertion and short on hard evidence. At the same time, however, these arguments are both fresh and provocative. Although the book sometimes reads more like an essay in social criticism than a work in social history, it does more than any other book I am aware of to situate the appearance of the dropout problem in its historical context. In doing so, it forces us to think more deeply not only about the way we construct educational problems but also about why our national preoccupation with dropout prevention has done so little to help those who leave before they graduate.
1 Joseph Kett, "School Leaving: Dead End or Detour?" in Learning From the Past: What History Teaches Us about School Reform, ed. Diane Ravitch and Maris A. Vinovskis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 265-94; James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford, 1986); and William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).
2 Michelle Fine, Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public School (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).
3 On this point, see Kett, "School Leaving." For a discussion of the gaps between policy and practice more generally, see David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), esp. ch. 2.