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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 2, 2006

School dropouts tell their side

USA Today

A new survey of high school dropouts offers a surprising view of why they don't finish school, finding that more than six in 10 were earning C's or above when they dropped out; nearly two-thirds say they would have worked harder if expectations had been higher.

The survey, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is being released today by Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based research firm.

The survey, by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, polled 467 geographically, racially and economically diverse people ages 16 to 24 last summer and fall, using focus groups and face-to-face interviews.

In many ways, the findings aren't unexpected. For example, about three-fourths say they would have stayed in school if they had to do it over again. But in other ways, the survey offers small, surprising glimpses into students' worlds:

  • 38 percent say they had "too much freedom" and not enough rules in school, making it easy to skip class.

  • 68 percent say their parents got more involved in their education only when they were on the verge of dropping out.

  • 70 percent are confident they could have graduated if they had tried.

  • 81 percent now believe that graduating from high school is important to success in life.

    "It does give us a perspective that we didn't have, which is the perspective of the student who drops out," says Jay Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

    But Greene, whose research has included studies on dropout rates, cautions that student points of view represent only "a partial and possibly distorted picture."

    For instance, 69 percent of dropouts say they weren't motivated, and 47 percent say classes weren't interesting. That is simply another way for students to say that their basic skills weren't up to the task of high school-level work, Greene says. "Being in school seems like a big waste of your time because you don't understand what's going on. You can't understand the material that's being assigned to you."

    The study suggests communities support "different schools for different students," a nod to efforts already under way by the Gates Foundation, which has poured more than $1 billion into school reform, primarily through funding the breakup of large high schools and the creation of smaller "learning communities."

    It also says states should consider "early warning systems" to identify kids at risk of dropping out and to look into raising the age at which students can legally leave school to 17 or 18, from 16 in most states.

    Schools also "need to do more to invite parents in," the researchers say, such as getting parents involved earlier when students miss school. "When kids start getting truant, we know that they're in the process of dropping out," Greene says.