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Can We Help Dropouts: Thinking about the Undoable

by Dale Mann - 1986

The author presents an overview of the dropout problem, pointing out that what is really a diverse set of problems requires multiple approaches. (Source: ERIC)

Recognizing that we live in a complex world, Dale Mann reminds us that there are few simple answers to persistent educational problems. He argues that the dropout problem calls for imaginative and multiple approaches to what is really a diverse set of problems preventing students from completing high school. His overview sets the stage for the articles that follow.

This article was prepared in connection with a grant to the Center for Education and the American Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, by the American Can Company Foundation. The analysis and conclusions are the author’s responsibility.

Dropping out of high school is again nearing the much-to-be-desired status of a scandal in education. The competition is tough—teacher inadequacy, too little character development, too much values clarification, a tide of mediocrity, bureaucratic rigidity, and so forth—but most of those things can be related to dropping out. A local headline, “26 Percent Never Graduate,” will trigger the demand that “something” be done about “the problem.” This article suggests that “the problem” is not singular and that the solution must be complex. But the nearly intractable problem of early school leaving requires more resources than it has ever attracted. We may have to think about dropouts the way John Lindsay thought about his responsibilities as mayor of New York City: “Insoluble problems masquerading as wonderful opportunities.” The accuracy of that bleak diagnosis depends on our skills as educators and as politicians.


A national estimate suggests that 25 percent of fifth graders will not make it through high school graduation.1 Local estimates vary depending on purpose. A district that wants more money to start a program can derive a high figure; a similar district pressed to defend itself will use different procedures and produce a low rate. The most common defense is to count the number of students who dropped out in a given year as a percent of the total high school enrollment. In any case, the size of the number is less important than how policymakers feel about it.


One of the best sources of information about dropouts is the National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience (NLS) Youth Cohort. During its first four years (1979- 1982), 5,880,OOO youth dropped out. But the nearly million and a half who left school each year without a degree did so for various reasons (see Table 1). William R. Morgan estimates that, for boys (who constitute 54 percent of the dropout population although they loom larger in the public eye), 51 percent disappear because of things about the school: 21 percent for economic reasons; 5 percent for family reasons; and 23 percent for other reasons. Youth older than the compulsory attendance age who have been retained in grade and then simply walk away are the largest component of the “other” group.2 But what are the practical implications of the big, school-centered set of reasons? Vocational programs have a higher dropout rate than academic programs,3 which might support the Committee on Economic Development’s (CED) recent attack on vocational education4 But the difference is probably due to prior preparation of young people in the two tracks: Forcing everyone into academic programs might accelerate the dropout rate. In pursuit of reform, schools have raised standards and will hold more children back. Being retained one grade increases the risk of dropping out later by 40 - 50 percent, two grades by 90 percent.5 Fifty-one percent of the males but only 33 percent of the females who drop out do so because they “dislike school.” Can we, should we change the gender-related experiences of schooling? Black youth who are poor stay in school more than do white youth who are poor, but is that because of perseverance in school or discrimination in the labor market?

Everyone agrees that the way young people experience school is the most frequently cited reason for quitting early. But what does that mean? Children who failed to learn? Or schools that failed to teach? The first are called “dropouts,” the second are called “pushouts.” Interestingly, youngsters blame the school less for their failures than might be expected. When asked why they dropped out, more than a third of all the boys say, “Because I had bad grades, ” “Because I did not like school.” Only one in five drop out because they could not get along with the teacher and only 13 percent are expelled. The figures underestimate the institution’s willful decision not to teach all children. Referrals to special education have become a common-way to solve class control problems by pushing some youth out of the mainstream. One district suspended additional referrals because at then current rates, the entire pupil population would have been placed in special education within three years.6

Saying that schools push out some young people is a harsh statement of a painful responsibility. When schools give everyone a diploma (one consequence of social promotion), employers are inconvenienced and will force schools to discriminate among, for example, young people who do and do not have basic academic skills. In the search to make high school diplomas “meaningful,” thirty-five states have raised graduation standards and twenty-nine have required passage of statewide minimum-competency tests, often as a condition of graduation.7 But as Robert Crain discovered, business is more interested in the attitudes and habits of potential employees than in their academic skills8 Thus, schools are increasingly expected to teach children not only how to think but how to act. The Committee for Economic Development has said,

If schools tolerate excessive absenteeism, truancy, tardiness, or misbehavior, we cannot expect students to meet standards of minimum performance or behavior either in school or as adults. It is not surprising that a student who is allowed to graduate with numerous unexcused absences, regular patterns of tardiness, and a history of uncompleted assignments will make a poor employee.9

Eighty percent of teacher criticism is now directed at 20 percent of the students. Blacks are already suspended from high school three times as often as whites.10 Nonetheless, CED’s message is clear: Schools should get tougher and kids should work harder. A recent study looked at the “time budgets” of young people, especially at how many from which groups were going to school full-time and simultaneously trying to make some money with outside jobs. The analysis indicated clearly that young people from minority backgrounds are fully engaged not just in school but also in paid employment. At least these young people are “Chasing the American Dream” (the report’s title) with the same kind of overtime investment that previous upwardly mobile groups have done. There remains a real question of whether, given the quality of their school experience and the nature of labor markets, they will catch it.11

Work-related reasons for leaving school are cited by 21 percent of the boys and 9 percent of the girls.12 This is a push-pull situation: Some are pushed by family necessity (about 14 percent of the boys in the High School and Beyond data set gave this explanation). Some are pulled by the lure of cash now (27 percent of the boys in High School and Beyond data).13 Either way, being in paid employment poses a cruel choice for young people already at risk. Given limited time and energy, schoolwork suffers. Barro says, “Both males and females are more likely to drop out if they work longer hours."14 Up to fourteen hours of paid employment a week, there is little effect. Fifteen to twenty-one hours a week increases the dropout rate by 50 percent; twenty-two hours or more increases the risk by 100 percent. Then there is the question of the quality of the jobs. Some may be full-time but dead end. These often temporary or seasonal jobs contrast with others that are threshold or entry-level jobs leading to a career. The jobs most likely to be held by the youth most at risk have been “dumbed down” and thus, again, hard work leads nowhere.15 On the other hand, “High school completion . . . substantially boost[s] the earnings of youth.” Morgan estimates that in 1981 high school graduates earned $60 a week more-than those-who quit.16

Looking at data about dropouts ought to teach us some things about the fragility of school completion, the competing forces that press young people away from that, and the very different impact of those forces on different kinds of youth. If only nine percent of girls leave school for economic reasons, only five percent of boys leave school for family reasons. But while boys drop out to support their families and girls to take care of them, both are helping. Between 1979 and 1982, 2.7 million young women left American high schools without graduating. One million of that group did so for family reasons: 45 percent left because they were pregnant, 37 percent because they got married, 18 percent because of home care responsibilities, especially for siblings.17

The closer one looks at the data, the less adequate are simple (if popular) explanations—“They’re lazy, ” “Kids drop out because they don’t fit in,” “They’re all on drugs,” “. . . having babies,” ". . . hanging out,” and so forth. Variations in the experience ought to invalidate simple explanations. Why do southern high schools have half the holding power of northern schools? Why are black rates 40 percent greater than white rates while Hispanic rates are 250 percent higher than white rates?18

The singular outcome—not finishing high school—is in fact a nest of problems. A migrant child jerked from one curriculum to another suggests a pedagogical problem. A black girl, angry at real or imagined slights, would benefit from counseling for herself and her teachers. The son of a single mother who works because his family needs the income is caught in an economic vise, and so is the daughter who is chronically truant in order to help with younger siblings. Across all dropouts, the range of circumstances is impressive, even daunting. Equipping any system (from a junior high school through a state) to cope with them means accepting the multiplicity of causes. But they are nested in another way.

Most students quit because of the compounded impact of, for example, being poor, growing up in a broken home, having been held back in the fourth grade, and finally having slugged “Mr. Fairlee,” the school’s legendary vice-principal for enforcement. These young people need a range of things, just as any system’s at-risk population will need services that fit their hurts. If the problem is complex, so will be the solutions.


Peng reports that the high school dropout rate for pupils entering the fifth grade has been 25 percent since 1958.19 When an indicator is that sticky—25 percent for twenty-five years—it says something about the power of the interventions being applied. Despite the amazing array of things that have been and are being tried, no one should talk about solutions.

In the list below, check the programs that are for dropouts.

(   ) Enhancing the self-image of elementary school children

(   ) An alternative high school

(   ) A “Big Brother” program run by the Chamber of Commerce for low-achieving high school students

(   ) Minicomputers for math instruction

(   ) A storefront street academy with an experience-based career education component

(   ) A school-improvement project to upgrade basic skills acquisition in a middle school

(   ) Drug abuse counseling

(   ) A foundation-supported study of occupational education

(   ) Smaller class sizes

(   ) T-shirts, notebooks, pencils (with corporate logos), and dictionaries given at a ceremony where three hundred ninth graders take a public oath to graduate

(   ) An ombudsman

(   ) A computerized index of commercially available curricula organized by objectives for academic skills, attitudes, and job-performance skills

If you doubt that the list can be extended endlessly and that everything can be related to dropouts, ask any schooling agency staff to report what they are doing about the area. (An obvious way to make sense out of any list is to ask that only programs “that work” be reported, about which more later.) The up-side of the astonishing array is a measure of the sincerity and creativity of the system. The down-side is chaos.

Asking “what works” is good for students who will continue to be at risk until we have better answers, and for a public that would like to maximize outcomes from tax dollars. But knowing what works requires knowing what was done (the interventions applied) to whom (recall the variations in etiology) and with what effect. Education agencies—not just schools—are trying a galaxy of things that deserve serious inquiry. Even sorting the preventive from the remedial interventions (i.e., before and after dropping out) would help, but this is seldom done. A second step is to apply a framework that captures differences among programs that may be related to differences in outcomes. For example, does a program work directly with at-risk youth or is it staff-focused, family focused, or organizationally focused in order then to get at the at-risk youth? Such a taxonomy was used recently to analyze dropout-related activities reported by a dozen U.S. public school districts. The categories most often used for the analysis of curriculum require data about objectives, learner diagnosis, program content, program delivery, resources, and pupil progress evaluation. Those six major headings were further divided into seventy-one subcategories. For example, was the program’s content “academic” (enrichment, remedial, interdisciplinary), “vocational” (work-study, career education, career exploration, job-specific vocational training), or “guidance” (family counseling, life skills, social skills)? The construction of such taxonomies is the first step in finding out what works best: academic, vocational, or guidance approaches. But a content analysis of programs submitted by just a dozen districts resulted in 360-plus entries scattered almost randomly over the major and minor headings.20 Without even addressing the outcomes question, the only thing that is clear is that most districts are doing lots of things. From the program-improvement perspective, that is a very weak finding. Said another way, considering just in-school programs, a dozen school districts were using sixty-three of the seventy-one logically possible approaches to dropout prevention and/or remediation. If those activities constituted a “naturally occurring experiment,” that is, a chance to use the results of current practice to refine future practice, then the activities would be a resource.

But they are not. On the one hand, virtually anything can be “related” to the dropout problem and on the other, we cannot even agree on what constitutes a dropout. Phi Delta Kappa’s Center for Evaluation, Development, and Research tried to derive a consensus definition of dropping out by looking at district reporting practices and concluded,

We simply cannot agree what a dropout is. In some districts death, marriage, taking a job, entering the armed forces, entering college early, being expelled or jailed, going to a deaf school, business school, or vocational school causes one to be considered a dropout. In another district, none of these acts would be considered. . . .

There are at least as many different definitions of a dropout as there are school districts recording dropouts. Some districts solved their problem of who to count as a dropout by not using any definition at all, whereas other districts had three or four definitions, and neither we nor they seemed to know which one was used.21

What have we learned? First, people feel that too many students leave school without graduating. Second, students are impelled to do that by a wide range of circumstances. Third, practical improvements depend on knowing what was done to whom, but (a) virtually everything is being done and (b) at the delivery level we cannot yet tell to whom or with what effect.22 Thus, we are doing a lot and learning a little about the multiple palliatives.

Some will dissent from this interpretation. Professionals often form strong attachments and strong beliefs about their programs, and well they should. But conclusive evidence documenting significant program effects is even more rare than careful evaluation in this field. The point here is not that nothing works—some things probably do, and some approaches are preferable to others. We ought to maintain some version of the array of things now being tried but we ought also to learn from them, including what Hodgkinson calls “negative knowledge,” that is, the candid admission that R, S, and T simply did not work and ought not be tried again.23 Given the protean shape of the dropout problem(s), there are no magic wands that, when waved, will turn chronic truants into college scholarship winners. People who believe in simple solutions here also believe that break dancing cures arthritis. Obviously, it is easier to be candid about program noneffects from the outside than the inside. Managers need success to increase budgets, leaders need hope to motivate staffs, and concerned professionals need positive outcomes to justify continuing and expanding their work.

And dropouts are a growth industry. In 1900, the U.S. high school dropout rate was 90 percent and no one cared. In 1940, it was 76 percent, but so what.24 Now our national rate seems stuck at 25 percent—objectively better than ever and subjectively worse than ever. Schools are not the only interested agencies. For example, community colleges have begun to tell state legislatures that there is a message about the high school when young people vote with their feet. Instead of more money to that repudiated institution, states are being told to fund “Middle College Schools” that pull adolescents out of the tenth grade and bring them to the college campus for grades ten through fourteen. Such schemes try to combine the holding power of the high school with the pulling power of the college. They also move social missions, staffs, and budgets from secondary to postsecondary institutions.

For a time, school people did not mind. Awash in the baby boom, confident in the illusion that schools were society’s primary educators, and discouraged by critics of their efficacy (both things were happening), it seemed just as well that the most difficult of the high school’s clientele would serendipitously “solve” the institution’s problem by disappearing. And if they went to a manpower training experience, a community-based agency, an alternative setting, or a private training vendor, so much the better. With too few resources for too much work, let the difficult cases tarnish someone else’s reputation. In most places there are a lot of agencies that work with youth at risk. One result of this otherwise wholesome social invention has been a diminution in the responsibility for these youth felt by the core secondary school and with that diminution an insensitivity to signals of needed improvement that have been ignored until recently.

If school districts can produce long catalogs of dropout-related projects, so can other municipal agencies. In New York City, less than half of every youth-serving dollar is spent by the board of education. Taking just the employment-related piece of the dropout puzzle, the board of education spends more than $200 million on work experience and occupational training (the figure does not include activities in the city’s ninety-plus academic secondary schools) but the department of employment spends another $80 million to work with in-school and out-of-school youth toward the same goals.25 Trainers blame teachers for having failed to make young people job-ready. Teachers respond that if they had the luxury of a single mission (vocational preparation) and the resources of the training community, youth would be better served. Everyone suspects labor unions of sabotaging training efforts if a successful program would increase competition, decrease the value of union members’ labor, or displace members’ relatives who might otherwise have the inside track on new hires.

Coordinating policies to improve the programs available to young people is surreal in its complexity. Public sector agencies are the federal and state departments of labor and of education, the municipal department of employment, the multiple programs within the board of education, and public postsecondary institutions. The private sector has nonaffiliated independent and parochial schools; private, for-profit vocational schools; colleges and universities; and community-based organizations. Obviously both unions and employers should be represented and at one seat each, that is thirteen chairs around a conference table. The employment/economic facet of dropping out is just one dimension.26

Doing better than current practice is going to rest on convincing politicians that it is important and school people that it is doable. The next sections take up those topics.


The fact that the dropout rate has not changed in such a long time suggests that not everyone regards this as a crisis. Teenage unemployment in central cities may be twice the unemployment rate of the Great Depression, but when an administration representative describes out-of-work youth as the “industrial reserve of America,” it does not take too much imagination to understand that cheap labor, available to practically any enterprise, has its uses and so by extension does a system that emits undertrained youth. A child at risk is not likely to be the captain of the cheerleading squad, a Westinghouse semi-finalist, or the nephew of the school board president. Beneath the flurry of reform and the easy rhetoric about having excellence and equity (more of both for everyone!), there is real competition. “Twenty-nine states have established new academic enrichment programs . . . for gifted students."27 But “as of 1984, virtually no state passed ‘reform’ legislation that contained specific plans to provide remediation to those who did not meet the higher standards on the first try."28 Most young people at risk will be what some describe as the undeserving poor.

Consider that 10 percent of those who quit also drop back in (“stopouts”) and that of those returnees, 90 percent go on to postsecondary education.29 Some do not rejoin high school but try another sort of postsecondary institution. One might imagine that such diligence would be worth supporting. But rather than reinforce these young people in their investment, the U.S. Department of Education wants to deny the 119,000 young people in this category eligibility for Pell Grants (which grantees later repay). And not only does the administration want to cut them out; Secretary Bennett has stated that “I don’t know what the Department can do about [the causes]."30

Most policy analysts subscribe to the notion that self-interest is the only reliable motivation. The task of policymakers is to get people to see how government action helps them. At the individual level, one might point out that when my grandfather retired in 1950, his Social Security Trust Fund income was guaranteed by seventeen currently employed workers who were paying into the fund. If I could retire in 1992, my Social Security checks would be supported by only three workers and one of those would be minority.31 With most of some youth groups both out of school and unemployed, how much wasted human capital can I afford? How much can governments afford? The Appalachian Regional Commission estimates that dropouts will earn $237 billion less over their lifetimes than will high school graduates. Thus, state and local governments will collect $71 billion less in taxes.32 (Said another way, we could spend $71 billion on dropout programs and still break even.) The majority of inmates in any jail are functionally illiterate yet a year in jail costs three times as much ($25,000) as a year in college.

Not all dropouts are a net drag on society but it is hard to argue that they are the most productive workers either. The U.S. economy is in the shape it is in partly because of the nature of the American labor force. Each day, we lose 3,500 jobs to foreign competition. Lester C. Thurow has noted that “every country in Northern Europe with the exception of Great Britain and Ireland, now has an average level of productivity, an average level of technology which is above the American average.” In 1983, Japan made 15 million video recorders and sold them for $13 billion. The United States made none.33

The U.S. gross national product is approaching the $4 trillion mark but we have lost the old U.S.-dominated production process markets like basic steel, textiles, clothing, and footwear. In 1950, we made 80 percent of the world’s cars; in 1980, 30 percent.34 The Japanese, who originally moved into those areas, are now shifting out of them, so that simple electronic assembly has gone to Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines while complex production processes (color television sets, tape recorders, ship building) are increasingly dominated by Korea, Hong Kong, and Mexico. Every year from now to the year 2000, 36 million new workers will enter the world labor force and 85 percent will be from less-developed countries. Robert Reich, in “The Next American Frontier,” suggests that the only way forward for the U.S. economy is in precision manufacturing—technology driven, flexibly produced, custom engineered processes. But what kinds of workers, what skills from young people are necessary for precision manufacturing, custom engineering, and flexible production? One measure of how badly we need reform lies in our current high school curriculum. We may congratulate ourselves that 15 percent of all high school students now take at least a year of French or German, but “the United States now does more trade with the Pacific Rim countries than with all of Europe combined. By 1995, American trade with the Pacific Rim will be double the size of our European trade.” How many years of Cantonese instruction does the average high school offer?35 Overcoming the political barriers to more resources will require that we convince ourselves that the United States cannot waste such a large portion of its youth. It is too expensive in lost taxes, misspent revenues, lost productivity, and lost profits.

Documenting the magnitude of a problem helps in assembling resources for amelioration.36 In that regard, the notoriously wobbly nature of dropout data is troublesome. Until we can agree on what a dropout is and how to measure that, no one can make a compelling case for more attention to the plight, for example, of out-of-school youth from Central America. If the data are unreliable, misunderstood, and a basis for finger-pointing, it is easy to see why leaders are nervous about this area. Even worse, it is likely that they will be unfairly criticized for something that is beyond their control. Only a fool would accept public accountability for making subway trains run at supersonic speed. Smart people resist being held responsible for things they cannot deliver. Thus, until answers come along, most districts will concentrate on what they do best, they will fret quietly about dropouts, and they will maintain a string of activities (often developed for other purposes) that can be trotted out in response to criticism. That may distress some advocates, but it is prudent in that it minimizes criticism and protects the main event, the core part of the institution. Still, most professionals came into public schooling for reasons that connect with the democratic premise that all children can learn and should be taught. Local dissent from a national policy of “teach the best and to hell with the rest” is widespread and encouraging.

You cannot beat something with nothing. Documenting the magnitude of the problem(s) is one step; the next is replacing current practice with better practice: Here, the wild variation in the numbers reported makes it impossible even to ask the “what works?” question. There can be no improvement without measures of success. The private sector calls this “the bottom line”; academics, “the dependent variable”; leaders, “results.” By whatever name, the public school dropout field has no data linking programs to outcomes. But it does not have to be that way. Two youth-serving areas have made remarkable progress, in part because common definitions of outcomes have illuminated the process of improvement. The addition of “positive terminations” in youth employment training programs (e.g., enrollees who graduate and find and keep jobs) and standardized reading and math achievement scores in schooling for basic skills have both helped refine programs by linking inputs to client outcomes. The measures are controversial and have unintended outcomes but the difference that the absence of comparable standards makes is noticeable in the dropout area.

If better data would help, so would better programs.


Earlier we asserted that there are no solutions. But professionals must always make rough judgments about what seems to work. Not very many policy decisions are based exclusively on the evidence. While initiatives are frequently resisted on the ostensible grounds that they are “unproven,” thankfully, school people never have waited for the analytic community to resolve the last empirical issue before adopting a probably preferable practice. What follows is one person’s summary of what works. It is offered in the hope that the reader’s judgment, when combined with my own, might yield better practice than is now the case. And, as Alvin Gouldner once said in another context, “I have not felt compelled to inundate [these] pages with a sea of footnotes. If the substance and logic of what I say here does not convince, neither will the conventional rituals of scholarship."37

To begin with, there are great gains in removing or ameliorating the things that later cause students to drop out, especially school failure and a lack of mastery of the basic skills. Howe points out that “it costs only $500 to provide a year of compensatory education to a student before he or she gets into academic trouble. It costs over $3,000 when one such student repeats one grade once.”38 Lawrence J. Schweinhart and David P. Weikart have shown that two years of preschool education for one child cost $5,984 and returned $14,819 in savings from a reduced need for later special education ($3,353), increases in projected lifetime earnings ($10,798), and the mother’s income from paid employment during the hours the child was in the program ($668).39 The best way to avoid dropping out in high school is to make the elementary school more successful. (A special case can be made for the junior high school. Large numbers of already fragile adolescents fail to make the transition either into or out of such middle grades). Going upstream to minimize school failure, maximize school success, and provide a foundation of basic skills pays high dividends. The practical and empirical work going forward under the “effective schools” label is a strong resource in that regard.40 The earlier we start, the less the damage and the greater the dividends.

Programs that seem to help have four Cs—cash, care, computers, and coalitions. For the first, we ought to understand that basic skills teaching and learning, by itself, is not enough. But then neither is it enough simply to put an at-risk young person into a work-experience program or an On-the-Job Training (OJT) situation. There needs to be a link between learning and earning. There needs to be experience with both schooling and paid employment. Some of the success of Joint Training Partnership (JTPA) program (née Youth Employment Demonstration Program Act [YEDPA], née Comprehensive Employment and Training Act [CETA]) springs from that connection.

The second C is care, or perhaps concern. Asking teachers to care about these children is asking a lot, since teaching them is seldom the system’s most sought after assignment and especially since the group at risk is likely to have clarified everyone’s incompetence and frustration for years previous. But there is no substitute for adults (probably all adults) knowing young people by name, asking about their lives, assigning homework, grading homework, and returning homework. One consequence is that the institution cannot be very large and the pupil-teacher ratio has to be lower than typically found. One example of what the care/concern precept can do is Atlanta’s “Community of Believers,” where—unique among U.S. urban public school systems—the lowest achieving youngsters are systematically identified and then paired with someone who has volunteered from the business community. Those adults are trained, tracked, and supported in their work with individual, at-risk youngsters and the early results are encouraging.41

Gary Wehlage’s analysis of programs that work for marginal high school students supports the care/concern thesis. Wehlage found that successful programs were small with lots of personal contact; teachers had high expectations, used a wide range of instructional techniques, and cared about student progress; and the students were challenged to succeed at feasible tasks and had opportunities to take initiative and to show responsibility.42

The property of care or concern is what the futures literature calls “high touch” and that must be coupled with “high tech.” The third C is computers. The use of computers here is twofold—Instructional management and student management. Berlin and Duhl talk about the “second-chance” school system that has grown up around programs of adult basic education, the Job Corps, and the youth employment training area.43 Many of the youth in such programs have dropped out; most share the sociodemographic characteristics of at-risk youth. Yet the second-chance system has made remarkable progress in recent years in working simultaneously on basic skills, attitudes, and job performance skills. One effort is a computerized index of the competencies necessary to each of these three domains, cross-referenced to the major commercially available curricula. Thus, a district can start at either end— “We’d like to teach these behaviors, how can that be done?” or, “We have these materials, how can they be used?” and use the system to support both teaching and learning. When fully operational, this “Comprehensive Competencies Program” (CCP) uses computer-assisted-instruction techniques to guide both teachers and students.44 “Some students enrolled in CCP learning centers attain impressive grade gains. At a CCP center run by the Milwaukee Opportunities Industrialization Center, average reading gains of three grades and mathematics gains of 3.9 grades were recorded for the first group of seventy-seven who completed 100 hours of instruction."45

The second use of computers is in identifying young people as they become increasingly at risk and then getting them help. Many students drop out because they cannot bear the cumulative weight of what is happening to them. Most districts have a sense of what those reasons are, and different parts of most systems even collect data about them. Computers can keep track of those multiple impacts and alert a professional before they reach a danger point. Poor grades in Rodney Zagorip’s student file are one flag, a second is truancy, a third is retained in grade/older than classmates, a fourth is discipline problems, a fifth is paid employment, a sixth is family problems, and so on. The computer asks (generally based on district-specific profiles), “How many hits can a 14-year old boy stand?” When that point is reached, the file goes to a dropout prevention team whose job it is to find Rodney and see that he gets what he needs.

But recall the nested problems of the dropout. Personally, what Rodney needs may well lie beyond the public school. Organizationally, there are nonschool agencies whose budgets depend on helping Rodney. If complex problems require ambitious solutions, the problem of early school leaving ought to implicate everyone—schools, youth employment programs, civic agencies, parents, community-based organizations, business and industry. Orchestrating different municipal agencies can be like steering the Crab Nebula. Turfs, unions, constituencies, missions, standard operating procedures—everything varies, but despite that, the national “Cities-in- Schools” program seems to be making a difference in Texas, Atlanta, and New York as it puts the schools together with parks and recreation, juvenile justice, family courts, social work, and youth employment.

In the context of coalition-building, the fourth C, it is worth repeating how much can be gained for at-risk youth by increasing the interaction between schools and employment-training organizations. The two agencies have much to offer each other. With refreshing candor, federal planners admitted in the 1970s that they did not know how to solve the problem of teen-age unemployment and thus, while they would continue to press for billion-dollar operating appropriations, they recommended that Congress reserve a fixed proportion for evaluating what was done. That simple expedient (plus an enormous amount of program evaluation design and implementation) turned federally supported youth-employment programs into a long-term, multi-site, mega-buck naturally occurring experiment aimed at deriving better practice from current efforts. We need to do the same in the dropout area. We also need to learn from each other. The interpenetration is apparent in the comments of two manpower economists, Berlin and Duhl, writing about summer learning programs:

Research on the effects of summer learning suggests that schools play a significant role in the education of rich and poor alike, significantly reducing, if not entirely overcoming, differential achievement rates related to socioeconomic status. Viewed in an employment and training context, school effectiveness research may have significant implications for in-school, school-to-work and summer youth employment and training programs.46

The final resource in coalition-building can be the business/school partnerships that have been formed in this decade. The Boston Compact is deservedly famous in that the participating businesses were challenged to reserve a specific number of new-hire vacancies to be filled with high school graduates if, in fact, the Boston schools could increase the achievement and preparation of such youth. A related approach with considerable success in finding and deploying new resources for the public schools is the creation of local education foundations, largely assisted by the Pittsburgh-based Public Education Fund.47

Classroom teaching is an isolated and lonely business but so is working in a dropout program. Districts maintain them but without much hope for success, and they are seldom promoted. Categorical programs do not target these youth while they are in school, there are no fiscal rewards to organizations that succeed, and there is no network bonding similarly inclined professionals. From the standpoint of career advancement, the area is so risky as to be a disincentive. Where neighboring professionals do try to communicate, the chaos of definitions, the blizzard of approaches, and the lack of agreed-upon outcome measures produce cacophony. The result is not only isolation; it is also good practices that literally cannot be shared. Here again, doing better rests on a coalition. If the lesson of the 1960s was that the system cannot be driven from the top, the lesson of the 1970s should be that it cannot be led from the bottom. No one is going to impose answers on this field but neither are answers going to bubble up unaided. We need a consortium of major players, dedicated to the thoughtful scrutiny of their own practices, convened over time, and with a way to test and share their results. That too suggests a coalition.

The policy area of the dropout is emphatically one in which action creates understanding. The clock that measures our efforts is calibrated with young people. Fifteen percent is a conservative estimate of the dropout rate for a city school system. In middle-sized cities—Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco—that means about twenty students drop out each week. If you are charged to “do something” about that you might begin with a survey of existing practices, which could take a month (and 80 students); a needs assessment will take two more months to circulate and analyze (160 more students); writing a program and getting board approval could be three months (and 240 more young people gone). That is 480 dropouts before anything different and maybe better is even tried. Our efforts here are measured by time and money and by what happens and does not happen to children and youth.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 3, 1986, p. 307-323
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 657, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 2:41:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Dale Mann

    Dale Mann entered the labor workforce at fourteen and later worked his way through the University of California at Berkeley as a construction worker and a bartender. During the Johnson Administrator he worked for the U.S. Office of Education and the (former) Bureau of the Budget. A fellow in Human Resources Development at the Community Service Society, Mr. Mann is also professor of and chairman of the department of educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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