The Sad and Sorry Stubborn Stat. – Education’s Dirty Secret

It is hard to believe it but it is true. In the United States of America, 7,000 high school students drop out of high school EVERY day that the schools are open. Every hour 1,400 drop out, each minute 12 drop out, each 5 seconds somewhere in the US a young student drops out. As this avalanche of drop-outs continues unabated, the cumulative totals are horrifying – 35,000 a week building and building like a rolling snowball to reach  around 1.4 million dropouts each year.

How would New Zealand look if the same proportion of students were to drop out of school? There are around 15.1m high school students in the US and about 285,000 students in New Zealand – that’s 53 students in the US for every one of New Zealand’s secondary school students. So if New Zealand students dropped out at the same rate as their counterparts in the US we could expect to see about  5,400 drop-outs (or “disengagers” as we prefer to say) per year in New Zealand.

Now that seems to be about right if the long-held assertion is to be believed that 20% of New Zealand school students are not at school at the age of 16 years.

So why is it that both the US and NZ seemingly have about the same rates of dropping out of  or disengaging from school? It is one of those stubborn educational statistics.

The terms “drop out” and “disengage” are used interchangeably in much of the literature but I suggest that there is a distinction between them. “Drop out” is an event while “disengage” is a process . There is a subtlety to “disengage” but a brutality in “drop out”. In my view, disengaging is a process that exists in three different manifestations.

“Physical Disengagement” occurs when the student leaves the programme to not return. The signs might have been there but they have either not been noticed or they have been ignored. Some of these signs of this could be erratic attendance starting with a pattern of lateness. Following both of these up to ascertain reasons and mitigations if done early enough, could effect chmanges in behavioiurs that will see the student survive in the programme.

“Virtual Disengagement” is when a student exhibits a semblance of interest, understanding and enjoyment. Seemingly all is going well. But in reality nothing much is happening in terms of learning and the growth of understanding and skills. You can be certain that this is aone of the reasons for low results, assignments that miss the mark, work not completed and so on. The signs are there and often early. It beggars belief that students can spend months of their lives in an ever-increasing density of fog around the course and the content in it. But these students smile, they do not cause issues for those who teach and they might and probably will not ask questions. But they become disengagers, at some point and sadly on too many occasions this is at the end of the course.

Good teaching and quality interactions equitably distributed throughout the group will alleviate some of this.

Finally there are the “Unintended Disengagers” who are often the younger students and especially those attempting to manage the school-to-tertiary transition on their own. They believe that they know what they would like to do but have not developed strength in the subjects (for that is the curriculum currency) that are essential. If tertiary providers knew with certainty what the requirements for entry were, and these included soft skills and dispositions, and if these were communicated to secondary students during the early part of senior secondary, unintended disengagement could be minimised.

Georgia State places high value on students enrolling in the right course which achieves the same result but in a way retro-fits the student to the course rather than the other way around. Could NZ reduce the 5,400 total of disengagers? By some measures it is a large total (equal to 6 secondary schools) but when spread over 374+ secondary schools with 25,000+ teachers a little effort by all could well do the trick. But we would then have to address the issues of the 400,000+ in tertiary institutions!

Or do we just push on ignoring the stubborn stat. and feed more students into the NEETS / Unemployed / Under-employed?

One comment

  1. Peter says:

    Thoughtful exposition thanks Stuart. Always good to unbundle/unpack a big thorny label like ‘disengagement’.

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