American Graduate: Pushouts

Dec 27, 2011

WWNO's first in a three-part series of feature reports in conjunction with "American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen"; a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities find solutions to address the dropout crisis.

We're taking a look at issues involving public schools in New Orleans, with Dr. Andre Perry of Loyola University reviewing problems in the education system, how New Orleans is faring, and what's on the horizon for improvements.

Education reform in Louisiana and most notably New Orleans has been highly focused on redesigning and creating schools that prepare students for selective four-year colleges and universities. However, understanding early school departure, a.k.a. dropout, remains to be a problem that needs innovation. "Seventeen percent that's roughly 1 and 6 students don't finish high school in this state.

That's a troubling number." That's Karen Rowley , the Education Policy Analyst for the Public Affairs Research Council, or PAR. Recently, Rowley authored the PAR report, "A Future at Risk: Meeting the Challenge of Louisiana's High School Dropout Problem." The seventeen percent Rowley cited is the cohort dropout rate, often called the four-year cohort rate, which is the percentage of students who leave school between the beginning of the 9th and end of the 12th grade. This is not to be confused with the event, or annual dropout rate, which is the percentage of students who dropout each year. The event dropout rate for Louisiana is 4.6 percent.

Most states and schools report the annual rate or use it in their accountability systems. Louisiana is among one of the sixteen states that report both the cohort and annual rates. "And the reason generally that they report the annual rate or event rate is because it's easier to keep track of. It's one year. It's a smaller number, as I said before. So it's not that it's inaccurate but it doesn't give you the total picture and it tends to be a better picture than if you looked at the cohort dropout rate."

Solving the problem of dropout will require educators and state officials to use different analytic terms that illustrate a broader picture of the phenomenon of early school departure. The term "dropout" has not only become a pejorative term, it frames the problem as one of student choice. Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana, an organization aimed at ending the school-to-prison pipeline, recognizes that one of the major feeders into the juvenile justice system are schools themselves. She and others use the term "pushout" to describe the process of early school departure. "Sometimes it's kids just wanting to leave the school system but a lot of times there's a hostile environment that kids might face in the schools that makes them feel as though learning isn't possible. Or, they'll actually sometimes be counseled out of the schools recommended that perhaps it a better idea for them to go elsewhere.

So pushouts is one of the terms that we use to describe kids who are leaving the school system but recognizing that it's not necessarily their choice." The label of dropout creates stereotypes that distracts educators and researchers from measuring some of the root causes of early school departure.

Deborah Vaughn of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University explains. "A lot of times we thought dropouts were associated with a certain demographic, or dropouts were kids that weren't prepared academically but in fact there are -- we see in some cases that dropouts are really students who are really super smart, they just become disengaged in the teaching or the instruction in the classroom so they don't show up to school, or they start to misbehave, because they're bored." Ironically, the label of dropout and the attention it steals prevents the institutions from increasing schools' holding power. It also, shifts the conversation of who – or what – may be most influential on early departure. "I think when we put the onus on the student we're in error. We should really put it on the schools. It's the schools jobs to engage the students and to keep them on track to succeed through high school and into college." Indeed, the concept of dropout may be a form of blaming the victim.

Andre Perry is a researcher for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. This report is part of American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.