High-school dropouts are generally assumed to be problem kids who never liked school. Absolutely wrong, says a new book based on detailed interviews with 53 former students living in the Puget Sound area.
The problem of high-school dropouts has inspired a pile of tomes seeking to dissect the causes and keep students in school. But the slim new book “Why We Drop Out,” based on interviews with 53 ex-students in the Puget Sound area, offers some surprising observations.
The most poignant: Almost every one of them had once loved school.
Yolanda, an avid reader, happily recalled raising chicks in an incubator. Xavier described his love for morning reading time and art class. Derrick was fascinated by looking at a frog beneath his microscope in seventh grade. Callie loved “everything about school” — until eighth grade.
Educators tend to focus on three early warning signs — absenteeism, poor grades and behavior problems — recognized as precursors to leaving school. But with half a million kids dropping out nationally, authors Deborah Feldman, Antony Smith and Barbara Waxman suggest that it might be more effective to take inspiration from a more positive source, the last time most young people felt connected to learning — namely, elementary school.
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“We all know, now, how important a sense of connection with teachers is to learning,” said Feldman. “But we pull away from that in middle school and treat kids who are 11, 12 or 13 as if they are much older when, actually, they’re still very young.”
Feldman’s research included detailed testimony from nearly five dozen dropouts living in rural, urban and suburban areas, all of them between 16 and 22. Just over half were youths of color. And for each there was a moment, a tipping point that pushed them out the door — and could have been avoided.
Taken together, these portraits belie the common stereotype of delinquents who don’t care about learning. To the contrary, the vast majority despaired as early academic frustrations went insufficiently addressed and the notion of themselves as learners steadily faded away.
The book sketches this progression in a clear, four-step process:
Step 1: Early feelings of discouragement, often around math.
Step 2: “Experimental skipping” of a single class, usually run by a teacher seen as uncaring. About 30 percent of Feldman’s sources had left…