Adult Education: Why Students Drop Out of Primary and Secondary Education

Graduate Studies Research Paper for JHR 500: Research Methods (12/14/2010)

drop-outThe educational system is one of the most important structures in society. It is a fundamental component in the growth and development of mankind. As evidence of this, the international community has emphasized the importance of providing a proper education to every child, designating it as an inalienable human right to all[1].

In the United States, virtually everyone has access to free, public education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Despite this, there is still a significant number of Americans who do not obtain a high school diploma and end up receiving what most consider an inadequate education. What forces are at play that may cause an American born child to drop out of school? What types of students are most at risk for receiving an inadequate education? Can anything be done to reduce the number of Americans who drop out of high school? In an attempt to answer some of these important questions, I interviewed the director of an adult education program within the United States. For the purposes of this paper, we’ll refer to the director as Kathy.

One of the main goals in adult education is to assist people in obtaining their General Educational Development (GED) certificate, which is equivalent to a high school diploma. The main population this serves is adults who had previously dropped out of school who are now essentially re-entering the American system of education. While these people only represent a small portion of the adults who failed to obtain their high school diploma, a look into the process that led them to dropping out may provide some valuable insight into some of the most common reasons students end up receiving an inadequate education.

In the first segment of the interview, I tried to uncover what some of the most common characteristics of people who come through adult education are. In terms of demographics, Kathy feels there are three specific age groups:

“I would say that the largest age group that we see is between the ages of 25-45. We do have a number of students who are between 16-21, and those will be students who just left high school and want to make a quick turnaround…. then we have students who are 45-65, which would probably be the smallest group.”

Kathy indicated that the gender split tends to be around 60/40 in favor of women, and that the most common ethnic groups she sees are Hispanic, White, and Black, in that order. However, she felt that this is primarily due to geographic region, and may not be representative of the country as a whole. In terms of income and occupation, Kathy offered the following insight:

“We have a lot of unemployed students that come in, and low to moderate income is probably the focus… I think that, even though this isn’t set in stone and it’s definitely not something that has to be a way to define our students, we do find that there are generational cycles to people that do not have access to education and are also living at lower income levels, and that would happen from generation to generation. So I think that is something we can characterize our students somewhat by, but it’s not necessarily all of our students. Of course we have some of our students that particularly now in our current workforce economy who have been employed for years and years and years, and all of the sudden they’re laid off and they have to come back to gain educational skills to get their GED because they’re no longer competitive in the workforce. “

So it seems that one of the major impacts of receiving an inadequate education is the inability to enter the workforce or having to settle for an occupation that provides an income that is unsatisfactory. After discussing each of these demographics, we dug deeper into when students typically drop out of school. Kathy pinpointed three times that students tend to drop out of school:

“I would say that, for American born people, many of them make it to 8th grade… but I think 8th grade is a stopping point for them, because they’re starting to get into a lot of subject content, and if they’re not strong readers they’re not going to have a lot of success moving into those more difficult subjects. You’re no longer dealing with how to read, fluency, and reading comprehension, now you’re dealing with: we’re going to study science; we’re going to study a topic that requires you to already have those reading skills. So I think students that get to 8th grade, between 8th grade and 9th grade is a common dropout time. And then another common drop out time is between the 11th and 12th grade when students, who I think are capable, just have ‘life happens’ [moments] and things occur that prevent them from being able to make that final step.”

When I asked if students ever drop out before the 8th or 9th grade, Kathy had an alarming response:

“Surprisingly – and this is probably the biggest shock of my career in this area – there are students who were never allowed to go to school. And it blows my mind that people would come in and tell us that they weren’t allowed to go, that their parents didn’t let them attend school past a certain grade, or ever. And to me, I’m thinking ‘that’s against the law. You can’t not allow your child to go to school. You can’t keep your child home from school.’ I think that’s a small portion of our students, but it definitely happens – often enough that I’ve been amazed by how many people I’ve seen, and often it’s young people, it’s people who come in and they’re in their early twenties and they tell us that they weren’t allowed to go to school or they were taken out of school at a really young age and were just kept from it.”

After dividing our target population into these three subsets, we discussed the potential reasons that may have caused these students to drop out of school during the process of education. Kathy offered both general opinions about this process, and some specific examples of students she had worked with and discussed these types of issues with in the past. In general, Kathy felt that the amount of support the student received was the most important factor in determining whether they would make it through high school, stating that a student’s success is very dependent on:

“…what kind of support they had, either from their family or from their school, or what they didn’t have from their family or their school, that makes them feel like they can succeed or can’t succeed, or makes them feel like they have a right to education or don’t have a right to education – I would say in my opinion that would be the most important factor.”

When I probed about instances of specific students she’s interacted with, Kathy provided the following example regarding students who were never entered into the educational system:

“I think that I can think of a couple students, and probably the parents had drug problems, would be one [factor]. And they had this child until the age of five, and just didn’t help them make that transition into school. Usually the students that will come in with stories like this, they’ll tell us what’s happening, but they’re not really specific, they’re not eager to talk poorly about their parents. But just as an educator looking into a situation like that, and knowing it’s illegal to not have your child in school, that’s serious neglect. And so, from my side, I feel like I’m able to make these statements about these parents without really knowing their scenario of why they managed to have a child that was never put into school, and I’m just putting that on my judgment because I know that it is illegal to have your child out of school like that, which that’s pretty serious.”

In the case of children who never attend school, it appears that this results primarily because of actions, or lack of action, taken by the parent. Shifting the focus to students who drop out near the 9th grade level, Kathy feels that the top factors are the schools, parents, and outside social pressures. Kathy claimed that a common situation is:

“Where [students] are just hanging on just enough to prove that they can pass to the next grade and that they can squeak by the test, and do just enough of the homework that [teachers] just pass them off that they’re not a very good student. I think that students like that [display] behavior problems – they’ll act out in certain ways to distract the teacher from the fact that they’re not learning and so they get labeled as the bad kid in the class. They get labeled as the class clown or labeled as something else that becomes more of a focal point then the fact that they’re actually not learning, and that’s what’s happening. In my opinion, and because I’ve worked with family literacy and family education, I think that to some extent, it is the parents’ responsibility to be aware when this is happening. And this is why I always go back to the family, because as a parent it is really important to realize that this is happening, if your child is in school and slipping behind and falling behind…”

Further she stated:

“If you think about the transition from 8th grade to 9th grade, often you’re going to a high school, which is a different school, so I think that it might be possible, and more likely than I realize for students at that age to be distracted by this new environment that they’re apart of and having access to all of these older students that are doing things, maybe, that they’re not quite socially ready to be exposed to and so they can be caught up, so to speak, in that kind of a situation. So yeah, maybe those kinds of social factors go [down to 9th grade more] than what I might be aware of.”

Finally, focusing on the group of students who drop out during the 11th and 12th grades, Kathy feels that major life events tend to be the main cause. Some specific life events she could recall included: pregnancy, family crises, or emotional trauma. Thinking back on stories of students she’s worked with before, Kathy recalled:

“Sometimes I hear stories from students, and it’s really hard for me to wrap my mind around that this kind of thing can happen to this poor individual. And you think, if only this one incident hadn’t happened, they could be in a very different place. But instead, this one incident did happen, and now they’ve spent four years of their life being consumed by that incident and brought down by that strain – too much strain – that someone at that age shouldn’t have to deal with. The average student isn’t coping with [these issues] and all of the students, they are given this great responsibility and they just break down or are forced to turn to something else.”

This discussion clearly indicated that there are some major issues and dysfunctions causing students to drop out of school, or never even attend school for that matter. While some scenarios may be unavoidable, it seems that the two main areas that could significantly improve student education in the United States are the public education system and the parents of these students. While Kathy felt that both of these areas should be focused on, one has the potential for providing a much quicker and much more significant impact on the lives of students. She feels the best solution is:

“Working with families and parents because I think that’s the one that is the most likely to improve or change. I think when it comes to the institution – the institutions are based on what funding is available, it’s based on bureaucracy, it’s based on the resources – and resources are there or not there, and I think that we can work as a country or as a state to improve our education system – I think it’s something that we need to do and we need to work toward, but that’s a slow moving beast. I think parents, and families, building awareness, and helping parents to become educated in their own sense can help to kind of break down those general cycles, and I think it’s the most flexible [solution].”

In conclusion, while every individual has a unique experience, it seems that the most important place to focus on is within the home and the with student’s parents. By focusing on family education, the cycle of poor educational achievement can be broken, hence, creating somewhat of a trickle effect down to future generations.

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights –

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