A Deeper Look at Rural High School Dropout Factors

This morning one of my many email subscriptions pointed me to an article in the new issue of Journal of Research on Rural Education that I think is unusually well-done and relevant. One of the things that makes this article special is that it recognizes that the factors behind dropout in urban schools and rural schools can be different.

There is a lot of evidence that dropping out of high school is correlated with poverty, a history of academic difficulty, and behavior problems and that these factors are important in both urban and rural schools.  There has been a tendency to assume that, given these correlations, dropout in rural and urban schools is pretty much the same.

This article begins by noting that, in the schools where dropout is a substantial issue, there are also many students in poverty who have had academic difficulty and who have behavior problems who successfully complete high school. The authors acknowledge the importance of the preconditions but draw upon other research to argue that there is usually some kind of triggering event or crisis that precedes the decision to drop out. This article describes a matched study of students who stayed and students who leave school — looking across six urban schools and six rural schools — that uses initial survey information for all students and intensive interviews of students who left and who stayed to dig more deeply into these triggering factors.

The article finds that situations that trigger dropout in rural schools are different from those that trigger it in urban schools.  In particular, the article provides evidence that a feeling of exclusion — of not fitting in — is common in students who decide to leave schools in rural settings, while in urban settings just the opposite can be true: being PART of a group is more likely to lead to trouble with law enforcement and leaving school.

Like so much good research, this study proceeds from a hunch … from observation of what seems to be true … and then collects evidence to test the hunch.  So, since you might have also noticed that feeling excluded is a sign of real trouble for rural students, it might be easy to say, “Yeah, what else is new?”

I think the value here is one of focusing our attention — and adding detail, such as the evidence presented here that issues related to sexuality are often part of the issue. For me, seeing the evidence sharpens my attention. Perhaps it works the same for you.

Doing a study like this, and doing it well, is difficult.  Consequently, there are parts of this paper, such as the sections on “Methods” and “Results,”  that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  If that is the case for you, I recommend you read up to the heading labeled “Methods” on page 4 and then jump to “Discussion” on page 13.  You can go back to the middle parts if you want to know more about how they did it, but the “Discussion” section does do a nice job of giving you the take-aways. If you ARE interested in how this kind of research can be done, this paper is a nice example. But, like I said … not everyone’s cup of tea.

My sense is that this paper is a big deal.  There has been too much lumping of rural school issues into the much larger body of research on urban schools.  For me, this paper moved me from thinking about background factors to the things that really push a student to do something that will hurt them over the long run. I think you will find it useful.

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1 Response to A Deeper Look at Rural High School Dropout Factors

  1. rcollay says:

    This is why persistence and resiliency are such important considerations as we look as success and pathways. And the list is long so any one strategy isn’t enough…so we need to support through the creation of social/cultural supports that are regional and relevant to the community and family. One would argue that schools could/should be this but, as noted, many of the triggers are school related: lack of success, the sense of not belonging, divisive social networks, and a focus on tests all contribute. Sports, clubs, some classes and teachers, do provide respite but not resiliency. Given that, how do we create opportunities for all youth to persist? There are many idea but one I think about a lot is multiple pathways…not tracking so much as the sense that you can find an interesting, rigorous learning pathway that works for you…we currently measure success as persistent failure measured against an artificial standard–even the best students only get 90% on a test…so if you are the 50-65% you are always a borderline failure. Even if you have skills, interests, hopes and dreams…few care about that do they? No we have an ideal (NGSS, Common Core drive this standardization as does a definition of rigor.) What if 100% of students succeed on their pathway? Where they see their contribution as significant, maybe even creative? Because this is impossible in the short term we need to offer youth a place where it’s safe to aspire, work hard, make a difference, be smart and this is most often in OST learning, clubs, service, evening and weekends.


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