Archive for the ‘Elementary’ category

Process Over Event: From Elementary Absenteeism to Secondary Dropout

August 4, 2010

Any given school day, across this vast landscape (USA), a kaleidoscope of urban minority school-aged youth are walking the street in various transitional states. Some children are huddled at the bus stop awaiting the arrival of the school bus while others are walking to school in small groups. However, many teenage males are congregating on street corners, females are sitting on porches, and both can be seen frequenting the neighborhood store for high calorie snack foods and drinks. For many, they are in the midst of transitioning from frequent absenteeism to truancy to dropping out.  You can witness this as one drives through any rapidly dilapidating neighborhood. The number of students seen in the neighborhoods while school is in session does not take into account the hundreds more who inhabit their residences without leaving for hours and perhaps days at a time. These children, of varying ages, are not in school during school hours.  Beyond being a compulsory policy, why are so many children absent from school, leaving school, and not graduating? What myriad factors are contributing to this dilemma? What policies and programmatic initiatives can reverse this skyrocketing trend (Rumberger, 2008; Steinberg, 2004)?

As a secondary public school student through the late 1970’s and 1980’s, my understanding was and remains that academic achievement is an active engagement that is accomplished through ongoing physical presence at an educational institution. Attendance enforcement in urban school districts has been a long-standing problem that affects school budgets, local law enforcement, and the judicial system.  Research has a divergent view of this quandary.  The existing complexities in urban communities and institutions coupled with a negative economic malady further contribute to the malaise associated with the graduation and dropout rates of inner city minority students (Orfield, 2004; Vartanian, 1999).

On the school front, things are not palatable either. Urban school districts are limited in their capacity to reach the thousands of students who are at risk for dropping-out.  Safety concerns, the lack of participant cohesion, high student-teacher ratios, dilapidated facilities, and performance pressures only inspire students to consider leaving school. Furthermore, programs earmarked for internal student support have inadequate funding and are vulnerable to elimination. Thus, these internal support programs do not receive the support necessary to assist a large number of students in overcoming the varying obstacles affecting their academic success, social and vocational development, mobility, and retention of those most at-risk for dropping out (Adelman, 2000; Gerwitz, 2009; Harris, 2007).

Gaps in the dropout research exist due to an absence of a standardized means by which to measure dropout rates nationwide as well as geographic and subgroup representation. Because the formulas used by school districts, state education agencies, and researchers vary, research has been conducted under the guise of different formulas.  Also, due to the No Child Left Behind Act, school district reports and associated achievement studies rely on graduation rates rather than dropout rates. 

Frequent absenteeism from school assuredly increases the amount of time students must officially enroll in school while acting as a gateway to dropping out of school.  Marino (2008) identified three prevailing instances of nonappearance:  Absenteeism, truancy, and school refusal.  Marino defines absenteeism as a period-of-time away from school legally approved by the parent while truancy is absenteeism without parental approval.  Too often, the assumed lack of adult supervision for potentially truant students leads to delinquency and anti-social behaviors.

Psychological research (Reid, 1999) indicates that truant students and unrelenting absenteeism  yield a population that has ” lower academic self-concepts, lower general levels of self-esteem, greater patterns of alienation from school over certain issues, higher levels of neuroticism and higher levels of antisocial behavior”.  Lastly, school refusal is an “inappropriate fear of leaving home” and/or an “inappropriate fear of going to school”.  The fear of leaving home can manifest itself through clingy behaviors used as a coping mechanism for adolescents who have a historically cultural dependence on the family for safety and support.  This parallels the fear of going to school which can eventually elicit separation anxiety and an overwhelming feeling of loss coupled with a fear of being alone (AACAP, 2008; Eisen, et al, 2006).  These behaviors, if not addressed, can promote social and educational problems throughout a student’s life. These problems are assuredly factors that further ensure academic failure. Unfortunately, there is not enough emphasis on studies relative to the possible link between truancy and psychological criteria such as anxiety (Brandibas, et al., 2004).

Absenteeism generally occurs at the elementary level when students have limited control and decision making capacity relative to their movement through the community.  Truancy develops from absenteeism, often evolves into anti-social behaviors, and are assigned to secondary students who are deemed responsible enough to care for their transport to and from school as well as their own supervision through the peak hours outside of school.

No matter the cause, academic failure can seriously malign a student’s ambition towards graduation.  The ongoing absence from school or class can result in academic failure, which is amongst the contributing factors for dropping-out (Mayer & Mitchell, et al., 1993; McCluskey, 2004). Reports (Ormrod, 2008; Rumberger and Lim, 2008; Schargel, 2007) have suggested that potential drop-outs can exhibit characteristics and risk behaviors as early as elementary school.  Elementary school aged children who demonstrate low attendance rates are at risk for academic failure for a variety of reasons.  These students do not have the opportunity to grow cognitively, socially, and academically due to increased time away from the structured learning environment.   The earlier in life a student exhibits such repetitive behaviors, the higher the likelihood for a student to be developmentally and academically behind their peers throughout their educational career. Thus, the drop out process can be set in motion by a variety of risk factors as early as elementary school (Alexander, 2001; Rumberger, October, 2008). Students entering high school are often several years older than their grade level peers due to prior retention and periods of high absenteeism. Age appropriateness along with course failure, retention, and developmental deficiencies are factors that contribute to dropping out (Rumberger, October, 2008).

Status Variables and Alterable Variables 

Lehr (2007) identifies two explicit tracks by which drop-outs are associated: status variables and alterable variables.  As an extension to Bloom (1980), status variables are comprised of standard factors that are unchangeable or a challenge to change due to complex dynamics.  Alterable variables consist of characteristics that are prone to flux and can experience a transformation with the application of appropriately aligned interventions.  Status variables and Alterable variables consist of a number of contributing factors:

Drop-out Status Variables and Alterable Variables

              STATUS VARIABLES             ALTERABLE VARIABLES
Race/Ethnicity Behaviors
Gender Student Grades
Socioeconomic Status (SES) Absenteeism
Parental Employment School Policy
Family Structure School Climate
School Size and Type Retention
Age Support Services
Region Attitudes
Ability/Disability  

(Lehr, 2007; Rumberger, 1995)

 Although influential, no factor in isolation can be assigned to dropouts without considering the presence and impact of other contributory factors as well as the impact from the other variable. Indicating all potential contributory factors further assists in the identification of those most at-risk for dropping-out.  In other words, an exhaustive investigation into multiple contributory factors reduces the possibility of under identification errors when identifying potential dropouts. With this, the combination of complex predictors is limitless as they play significant roles in the drop-out crisis.

Interventions to reverse dropout numbers have been instituted using both status and alterable variables as criteria. Recognizing what can be changed and what cannot be changed are important when designing intervention strategies and programs for at-risk students who have the propensity to drop-out of school. Although informative and influential in decision-making, status variables are comprised of factors that extend beyond the scope of school district interventions. Research (Christenson, 2004, page 36; Lehr, 2007) indicates that schools are best suited to address the alterable variables due to their “utility” and capacity to change.  Nevertheless, the convergence of status variables and alterable variables toward comprehensive policy development that positively affects the outcomes of student achievement is a topic for further investigation.

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