Dropping Out

A Preschool Through High School Concern
Betty M. Merchant
The University of Texas at San Antonio

Americans generally hold the belief that success comes through education. And in many fields, the years of schooling required for employment have risen dramatically. Despite this emphasis on education, however, thousands of students continue to drop out.

Understanding why students drop out is important in developing effective dropout prevention strategies. But by focusing on the specific act of dropping out and emphasizing associated consequences, educators have often neglected the search for earlier clues. As students progress through the grades, their experiences shape their thinking about school and may contribute to an orientation that promotes dropping out later. This paper examines dropout characteristics and behavior from preschool through high school and presents the experience of selected dropout prevention programs.

The following characteristics are known to be strongly associated with dropouts:

  1. Low or failing grades and lo standardized test scores
  2. Placement in a remedial academic track
  3. Bored or apathetic attitude toward school
  4. Chronic truancy
  5. Over age for a particular grade
  6. In-school delinquency
  7. Parents who did not complete high school
  8. Family with serious economic problems
  9. Family headed by a single parent (although the absence of natural parents in itself may be less important than associated financial problems)
  10. Minority group status (ethnic, racial, linguistic, or cultural)
  11. Social isolation from peers 0ess participation in academic and extracurricular activities)
  12. Low academic self-esteem (perception of ability to succeed at academic tasks)
  13. Low sense of personal autonomy (power to influence the environment and to effect desired outcomes)
  14. Low educational and occupational aspirations
  15. Teenage marriage or pregnancy

Traditionally, interest and research have focused on high school dropouts. More recently, researchers, educators, policy makers, and business and community leaders are recognizing a developmental aspect to dropout behavior and examining possibilities for earlier intervention.


Preschools are viewed by some as opportunities to equalize children's knowledge and skills before entering a public school system. Results of these compensatory programs are often contradictory, although there are long-range studies which indicate that compensatory programs have had a positive effect upon children. These effects include cost-effective and relative improvements in educational achievement and later success, as measured by grade and degree attainment, employment, and earnings.

Other educators are concerned that compensatory programs are premised upon a deficit model, and as such, may generate lowered academic expectations among the children served. This is an important concern because researchers contend that the most powerful predictor of a student's completion of high school is his or her own expectation of eventual educational attainment. Parents' attitudes toward school, and their educational level, also affect dropout behavior in their children.

In view of this, programs that address children's early expectations of school success could be effectively initiated in preschool. Efforts could address ways in which parents' level of education and attitudes toward school affect their children's expectations of their own school success. Similarly, efforts should focus upon teachers' expectations of students' potential for achievement and how these expectations affect children in their classes. Preschool programs should be designed to increase the likelihood of positive learning experiences for children and to reinforce their value as individuals, capable of learning and succeeding in school.


Elementary school is an important time to identify students' strengths and weaknesses and to provide critical educational intervention when necessary. Many dropout prevention programs, for example, focus exclusively on low-achieving students. Intellectually gifted students who are bored with the regular curriculum are often overlooked, yet without academic challenges appropriate to their level, these students may also be at risk of dropping out

Every effort should be made to ensure that children progress steadily through the elementary grades and that they maintain an appropriate level of achievement in all essential skills, particularly reading. Fiscal and other resources, varied teaching strategies, on-going support, and follow-up are needed to accommodate individual student differences within classrooms. The practice of having students repeat grades needs to be examined closely in light of research which points out the correlation between grade retention and dropping out.

Research now underway suggests that the ways in which students are grouped can be modified so that al1 children develop a stronger sense of their academic abilities. There are also a few, yet important, dropout prevention programs which attempt to change teacher behavior and attitudes which may be biased against low-achieving children.

Teachers and administrators must be alert to conditions of children that may signal problems later on. A checklist of characteristics commonly associated with later dropout behavior, used only to flag the possible need for intervention strategies, can be helpful in alerting school personnel to potential at-risk children. Elementary school is also the place to assess the extent and strength of a child's supportive networks. These networks should include all resources available to support each child as he or she moves through school. This may involve strengthening existing networks and creating new ones as needed.


Secondary students confront a more complex array of problems than they found in elementary school. Increasing maturity, peer group pressure, and the complexity and range of issues confronting students further complicate their relationships to school. This is particularly true in junior high.

There is growing recognition that many students begin "phasing out" in junior high, eventually dropping out even before reaching high school. Greater attention should be given to helping students make the transition from elementary to secondary schools where instruction, often large group instruction, is carried out in a departmentalized system by different teachers. Such efforts might help students feel more connected to their school environment

If students feel incompetent intellectually, inadequate academically, and alienated from school, "escaping" from the system becomes an attractive option. There should be opportunities for students to move among academic cracks in order to choose courses that meet their abilities and interests. In addition, low-achieving students benefit from experiences that connect school with work as well as future educational opportunities. It is in this area that businesses can play a vital role in supporting the efforts of schools by providing students with an opportunity for pan-time work, conditioned upon regular attendance and progress in school.

Teachers who work with students at risk of dropping out should be trained in alternative ways of instructing students who have a history of school failure. This may involve addressing existing teacher, parent, and student attin1des. It may require sm1ctural changes within secondary institutions to increase student involvement or provide a more personalized learning environment. Other modifications might include alteration of instructional strategies, with provision for more individually-paced, clearly-specified and sequenced learning activities, as well as the integration of academic activities with the world of work. Flexibility is necessary in providing alternative educational programs, sometimes located away from traditional campuses, to serve students with special needs. Such programs can include independent study centers, continuation schools, and special classes designed to teach students personal and study skills. ,

Schools serving similar student populations differ in their actual dropout rates, despite the fact that their predicted dropout rates were the same. Structural variables which researchers believe may be related to lower dropout rates include: neighborhood versus system-wide attendance boundaries; cohesive, supportive student body; cohesive, supportive community; school safety; school discipline; extent of extracurricular activity; course grading policies; amount of homework assigned; and type and degree of support for less able students. This research should alert educators to examine structural elements of schools which can be modified to provide a higher quality of life for students. Particular care should be given to redesigning systems (like Average Daily Attendance and the traditional notion of high school completion within four years) which may act11ally be counterproductive to monitoring and retaining students.

A salient finding of several programs targeted to high-risk students is that individual attention matters-simply the fact that someone cares enough to help makes a difference to these young people.

Suggested citationMerchant, B. (1987, December). Dropping Out: A Preschool Through High School Concern [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.