There continues to be a national recognition that in spite of some recent success the dropout rate in U.S. schools is too high. That too many students are not successfully completing high school and we need to focus on keeping students in school.
Corresponding national initiatives address this challenge by building awareness of the economic, social, civic and personal negative impact of dropping out; others focus on the most effective strategies to keep students in schools; while others advocate for alternative formal and informal education structures and schools for potential dropouts.
It is easy to agree that we need to build awareness, adopt the highest quality school and community strategies and determine more beneficial options for students to reduce the dropout rate.
But if we are serious about increasing the attraction of schools for students, particularly those at risk of dropping out, let’s ask students about their experiences, insights, strategies and recommendations for creating the types of learning environments they find most successful for them.
There is nothing new about asking consumers about product improvement, in fact that is an essential element of Marketing 101. Yet we rarely ask students, in authentic ways, what they need to be successful in school.
Recently I had the opportunity to engage with several high school students, once considered at-risk, asking them to describe “what is happening” when they are most successful in school; “what school-based strategies” they find most supportive of their learning and development: and “what suggestions” do they have for education leaders, policymakers and advocates for reducing dropout rates.
Here are some of their insights:
- I appreciate teachers who take their time to get to know each student, demonstrate that they care and willing to understand the circumstance students experience in and outside of school.
- Great teachers know where I am coming from.
- In terms of classroom experiences, teachers who engage us in project and group activities are more effective as they encourage us to learn both about the subject but also build interpersonal skills.
- I need to understand how classroom experiences relate to my future.
- School should offer an environment that engages me and motivates me to apply myself.
- What I find most helpful in terms of teacher characteristics is their comfort taking risks and trying new things in the classroom to make learning relevant. Using group-based activities to ensure we are capable of working with others and take individual and collective responsibility for learning. What I find most unhelpful are teachers who want every student to learn the way they learned rather than the way we learn. I believe everyone has a unique way of learning and we are most successful when teachers focus on assisting us to think, apply what we learn and enjoy the activities.
- A student’s motivation is a big role on how each individual student succeeds. If the student is disengaged and unmotivated, they will most likely not succeed or eventually not want to succeed. I believe that adults should be there to guide the students in the right direction. But not to the point where we, the students, are just sitting there listening and are expected to memorize everything you say.
We can see from these students’ journeys that they seek school environments and activities that are relevant to their lives and their ability to learn; at the same time they desire teachers who engage them, believe in them and focus on both knowledge and skill development.
Ensuring students stay in school requires an environment that is safe but challenges each student and teachers who understand student circumstances.
Doing so will motivate each student to understand how education is relevant to their lives now and in the future.
Therefore if we are serious about decreasing the dropout rate we should ask students about their experiences, seek their insights and orient our strategies collectively and collaboratively.