Dropouts Essay

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Adolescents have left schools for as long as there have been schools, but the term dropout emerged in popular culture on the cusp of the tumultuous 1960s in the United States. With the use of the term came multiple political, social, cultural, and economic interpretations, each situating the label and domain of dropout in particular ways. Evidence from the last century about school leavers indicates that the issue of leaving school is multilayered and systemic. This entry is a historical sketch of school leaving, or dropping out, and the contexts in which schools produced students who left school.

Early History

The first public high school opened in Boston in 1820, and other high schools were opened in cities soon thereafter and competed with private academies. However, high school was a luxury, and most older children went to school only when they were not farming or working.

Early High Schools

Wealthy and middle-class White families supported the early high schools, and their affluence allowed them to extend the formal education of their children. Few adolescents living in poverty attended them. The high schools were not popular with working-class children and adolescents, who found the subject divisions in the curriculum unconnected to the lives they led and the labor they provided. Although these schools prepared students for teaching, they rarely made them ready for college or specialized professions.

Over time, each state adopted compulsory schooling laws. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory schooling law in 1852, requiring children eight years old to fourteen years old to attend school twelve weeks a year. By 1918 every state had passed compulsory schooling laws, though the age varied from state to state. Compulsory schooling began at age five in some states, and six, seven, or eight in others. Compulsory schooling ended at age sixteen or seventeen in some states and age eighteen in others. Of course truancy, or unexcused absences from school, did not exist until states passed these compulsory schooling laws. New York passed the first truancy law in 1853, prohibiting any child between the ages of five and fourteen from wandering the streets. The number of days that defined truancy varied by school, district, and state.

Although compulsory schooling laws were in place, there were high percentages of school leaving, as young men in particular, many contributing to family income, chose work over school. Throughout the late 1800s, when these young men left school, they found work opportunities without a high school education. During this time, less than 40 percent of children received regular instruction in school, and only one student in ten finished the fifth grade.

In the early decades of the 1900s, tens of thousands of working-class immigrant youth chose the same pattern. They left school to work. Many left school before completing the eighth grade. In 1902 researchers found that students reported leaving school because they did not like school, they had family and financial responsibilities, or they suffered from ill health. Social reformers concerned about the high rates of school leaving supported the implementation of a practical, differentiated curriculum, and they hoped such a curriculum would engage and retain students.

William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965), a philosopher of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, thought that the subject divisions of the current curriculum hurt most students, and he developed a curriculum for primary and secondary schools that promoted specializations as early as the sixth grade. In essays collected in Remaking the Curriculum in 1936, he described a schedule that encouraged individual interests that transcended subject divisions. As children moved from grade to grade, teachers would document their interests and consult with their future teacher. Specializations would slowly encompass more time in the school day as the student moved through the grades and link the student’s interest to life experience rather than formal subject schoolwork. Kilpatrick believed that the majority of students had no need to specialize along subject lines throughout secondary school, and that those students whom teachers forced to do so dropped out.

Postwar Years

Following World War II, retention programs emerged in earnest as administrators continued to witness the production of dropouts. Successful programs echoed Kilpatrick’s sentiments and suggestions from school leavers. In a New York study on retention conducted from 1946 to 1954, researchers found that school leaving could be reduced by connecting a practical curriculum to experience in the world with activities, such as field trips; increasing job counseling; providing opportunity for work experience; assisting with job placement; increasing electives; and communicating with parents through home visits.

During this time, thousands of school leavers in a Midwestern study expressed concern about schools’ ability to retain students. These early school leavers proposed that students needed work experience or specialized vocational instruction, an increase in school activities, opportunity to change courses, more caring and productive relationships with counselors and teachers, and smaller classes to provide opportunities for individual attention.

In the late 1940s, a young White man could leave school and find work (much as in the late 1800s), but a decade later, unemployment rates had increased. Youth who left school before graduating had trouble finding a job. In an economy that had just begun to cut unskilled and semiskilled jobs, school leavers, without training or work experience, sometimes could find only part-time work and experienced more job insecurity than students who had completed high school and received a diploma.

By 1950, only 60 percent of youth had completed high school, and to increase the accuracy of national and state studies on school leaving, federal and state departments urged local school districts to keep records of students leaving school. As the decade began, White high school dropouts received stable employment in occupations to which Black high school graduates were denied access. White high school dropouts in 1950 comprised 65 to 70 percent of skilled and semiskilled work in industry and 40 percent in sales. By 1960, although over 40 percent of Black youth ages twenty to twenty-four had successfully completed high school, White business refused to offer them jobs. Less-educated White workers dominated industry and sales.

Unemployment among youth began to rise as the demand for unskilled and semiskilled work, especially in large urban centers, decreased. Youth faced increased job insecurity and unemployment. In the schools, one student of every three left before completing the eighth grade. Across the fifteen largest cities in the United States, researchers found that over 60 percent of the students living in neighborhoods of poverty left school, a quarter of whom could not find a job. These conditions affected mostly Black children, as urban populations had become predominantly Black in the 1950s.

School Leavers Become Dropouts

Historically, educators and social reformers used “school leavers” or “early school leavers” as labels to describe those children, and later adolescents, who left school before completing the grade that dominant, White, middle-class culture expected them to complete. In 1900 this meant completing the eighth grade. Sixty years later this meant finishing high school. In the 1960s, those students who left high school before graduating found themselves called dropouts and centered at a national crisis in education.

Framing school leaving or dropping out as a process and not an event was paramount as educators worked to understand the factors related to leaving school. And the factors were multifold. Dropping out or school leaving is generally viewed as the result of larger systemic issues of inequity in public schools. In this perspective, the public high school, although free, is a place where teachers and administrators sort, separate, and stratify children across the curriculum. The curriculum and the process of socialization alienated children who lived in poverty and children who were minorities, particularly in urban environments, where the intersection of class and race was fused for children living in impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhoods and wards. After 180 years, low socioeconomic status remained the strongest factor related to school leaving. In the United States, this meant that children of color, who were more likely to live in poverty, were therefore disproportionately more likely to leave school.

A Crisis Emerges

Educators, school reformers, philosophers of education, psychologists, and sociologists addressed the issue of school leaving through the first half of the twentieth century, but not until the early 1960s was school leaving and the dropout labeled a national crisis. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared school leaving a national problem, and government agencies, public and private institutions, and nonprofit organizations hastened to complete research on the national crisis of the dropout while a new economy, with requirements for specialized skills, grew.

Schools and districts embraced reform models to increase retention, many with success. A project in junior high and senior high school in Kentucky targeted at increasing students’ self-concepts, providing personal and social services for students, and implementing a new curriculum generated successful results in significantly reducing dropout rates and issues of discipline. The school made structural changes giving teachers the autonomy to develop a new curriculum where needed, and provided students with free or reduced breakfast and lunch, school supplies, instructional fees, clothing, medical assistance, and counseling services. Students’ self-concepts increased, and in-service training for teachers increased flexible, engaging, and encouraging pedagogical practices in the junior high school and encouraging pedagogical practices in the senior high school.

For school leavers, however, the situation worsened. By 1965, the unemployment rate for school leavers was double that of high school graduates and the highest unemployment rate for any age group. The availability of jobs involving unskilled and semiskilled labor continued to fall into the early 1970s. Although experts had documented the changing economy, and poverty remained the strongest factor related to school leaving, research in the 1960s burgeoned with formulas identifying the individual characteristics of school leavers. The U.S. Department of Education reported low grades and an inability to get along with teachers and other students as reasons students left school.

Some researchers attributed the phenomenon of dropping out to a character disorder in the dropout. Ignoring the context in which students went to school, the structure of school as an institution, and school leaving as a violation of White, middle-class expectations, these researchers cited low aspirations and goals, cynicism, family problems, and a history of school leaving in Black communities as reasons for dropout rates. They emphasized individual and community deficiencies rather than institutional and pedagogical deficiencies. Ironically, among their recommendations for change and retention were the establishment of genuine, caring relationships between teachers and students and developing relevant curricula connected to work and life experience.

Decades later, research emerging in the 1980s identified anxiety about the changing economy, race riots in Northern cities, and illegal activity among youth, as well as the conservative politics of school administrators and institutionalized classism and racism, as elements contributing to upper and middle-class expectations that urban high schools quell urban chaos. The term dropout emerged as the label and domain that captured these anxieties.

School leavers faced higher rates of unemployment and health problems than those who stayed in school and were more likely to work illegally or participate in illegal activities, but whereas concern for school leavers by social reformers in the early 1900s stressed connections across curricula to employment, fear directed the worry over dropouts in the 1960s. A privileged upper and middle-class White public heaped their anxieties about crime and race, as well as demands for institutional change from communities of color, onto the dropout and the schools he and she left.

Research that captured the articulation of students for school leaving documented responses that had been shared by school leavers for seventy-five years. Former students explained that they left school because they chose to go to work rather than to go to school, had family and financial responsibilities, and did not like school. In addition, researchers found that nonpromotion of students increased dropout rates.

School completion rates have increased since the 1970s for both White students and Black students; however, poverty remains the strongest factor related to school leaving. Research in the early 1980s revealed, counter to claims of the 1960s, that students who left urban schools were psychologically healthy and thoughtfully critical of the social and economic conditions in which they lived and their schools functioned. Demonstrably different from their counterparts who stayed in school, these students developed a sound sense of self and were less prone to depression than their peers who stayed in school.

Throughout the 1980s, conservatives continued to pathologize children instead of the system and refused to address the failings of public school systems and the responsibility of schools. The credibility of this position was challenged amid research findings that situated school leavers in systemic dysfunction and historical and material conditions. Researchers found that disempowered teachers stigmatized and discouraged students, and that schools where students cited uncaring teachers and administrators, inconsistent and unfair discipline procedures, and truancy produced more dropouts. Schools with tracking, strict nonpromotion policies, and competency examinations also produced more dropouts. Urban high schools in particular faced severe overcrowding and abysmal student-teacher ratios. Research during this period also documented the high numbers of LBGT (lesbian/ bisexual/gay/transgendered) students who left school from fear of harassment and violence.

The Current Situation

By the late 1990s, the dropout rates for Black students were twice those of White students, and for Hispanic students three times that of White students. Consistent with research findings for a century, the majority of school leavers survived on less, with their incomes in the lowest 20 percent of family incomes. These students were four times more likely to leave school than their peers whose families’ incomes were in the top 20 percent of family incomes.

In 2005, the national dropout rate was still about 25 percent, more than 410,000 students, but in urban high schools, the rate reached 60 to 70 percent. The same year the Urban Research Institute Education Policy Center announced that over 1.3 million ninth graders would not receive a high school diploma. Nationally, dropout rates doubled for students who had repeated a grade, signaling that the rule of nonpromotion was not working. Research continued to show that students chose work over school (illegal work for many), had family and financial responsibilities, and no longer liked school or the uncaring teachers there. Young Latinas, with the highest rate of school leaving, cited family responsibilities, motherhood, and marriage as reasons not to stay in school. School leavers continued to earn less than those students who finished high school, and a higher percentage of young women among school leavers faced motherhood than their counterparts who stayed in school. School leavers still faced higher incidents of illegal activity in addition to drug use.

Systemic issues remained: overcrowding; dilapidated school facilities; reduced resources; reduced staff, including counselors and social workers; a rigidly standardized curriculum; and school violence. And much like the preceding decades, more Native American students left school than Hispanic students, more Hispanic students left school than White students, and more White students left school than Asian students, and the strongest factor related to school leaving was low socioeconomic status. In the 2000s, researchers recommended specialized diversity training for teachers, critical multicultural education in teacher education programs, apprenticeship programs for high school students, and alternative visions for the curriculum in high schools (like Kilpatrick in 1936).


  1. Dorn, S. (1996). Creating the dropout: An institutional and social history of school failure. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  2. Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public high school. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  3. Kelly, D., & Gaskell, J. (Eds.). (1996). Debating dropouts: Critical policy and research perspectives on school learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. Weis, L., Farrar, E., & Petrie, H. G. (Eds.). (1989). Dropouts from school: Issues, dilemmas, and solutions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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