As of 2014, the four-year graduation rates for American high school students had risen to over 82% (NCES, 2015). Although such an improvement should be applauded, the fact is that about 1 in 5 students still fail to graduate high school in four years, the U.S. still lags behind several developed countries in high school completion, and certain groups of students are far more likely than others to drop out of high school. Moreover, the opportunity cost of dropping out of high school in 2016 is higher than ever given the diminishing level of available careers for somebody lacking a college degree, let alone a high school credential. So given the stakes, why are some students choosing to drop out of high school? In a recently published article “School Climate and Dropping Out of School in the Era of Accountability,” we explore how various aspects of high school climate, organization, and composition contribute to this pivotal dropout decision.
Using the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, a nationally representative dataset of over 20,000 high school students, we examined which specific school climate domains (academic climate, disciplinary climate, and school attachment) were associated with whether a student ever dropped out of high school and whether a student was currently a dropout. We found that both school disciplinary order and school attachment were important components, but that the most important factor was whether a student attended a school where the students felt a high level of attachment to their school and teachers. In fact, attending a school with a higher school attachment decreased the odds of being a current dropout by 67%. Unfortunately, for decades, we have not necessarily designed high schools with school attachment in mind. Our so-called “shopping-mall” high schools were predicated on offering a vast college style menu of courses; our teachers tend to be focused on raising student test scores; and metal detectors and police officers characterize many urban high schools. Based on our research, we believe that teachers and school leaders—especially in high-poverty schools—need to strive to create a space where students feel safe and connected. School attachment is especially crucial for lower achieving and minority students who are more at risk for becoming alienated and dropping out of school.
Our findings on school attachment provide another important lesson for school leaders, policy makers, and even survey designers—namely, that students are the best evaluators of school climate. Of the three school climate domains we examined, only the school attachment variable was based purely on student responses. Unfortunately, the makers of this particular survey relied greatly on principals, teachers, and counselors to assess the academic and disciplinary climate of the school. In some ways, this is the equivalent to conducting a marketing study purely based on corporate perceptions rather than the consumers. We think that school leaders will be able to respond better to the socio-emotional and academic needs of their students by listening to them more. Given the unique context of each school, school leaders may want to utilize school-specific surveys or focus groups in order to better understand their students’ experiences and needs.
We recognize that school climate does not exist in a vacuum and that there are several school-level conditions that predicate a strong school climate at high schools. Although we did not find a direct connection between school composition and math achievement, we did find an indirect effect of attending a high-poverty or high-minority school on dropping out of high school. On average, schools with a higher proportion of black and Latino students had lower levels of school attachment and disciplinary order. Likewise, on average, schools that serve families from a lower socioeconomic status had lower levels of school attachment, disciplinary order, and academic climate. This school climate gap is especially discouraging because students who attend high-poverty and high-minority schools are the students that often benefit the most from higher levels of school attachment and disciplinary order.
Resolving the school climate gap requires one of the two courses of action. The more direct approach of creating more racially and economically integrated schools requires district, metropolitan, and state-level action. Rather than waiting for district and state actors to intervene, school leaders can instead work to foster a community of caring amongst their staff and students.
It can be discouraging for scholars of education to investigate which, if any, school factors affect high school student performance. After all, the two most important factors for student success in high school are family background and prior skills, obtained before 9th grade. In essence, much of a student’s success in high school is predetermined by factors that are outside of the school walls. Yet, our study illuminates how high schools can make a difference in dropout rates by creating a space where students feel safe and connected to their school and teachers. Although devoting time and resources to the improvement of school climate may seem like a distraction from instructional and test prep time, our research suggests that such process of capacity building is critical and ultimately raises the level of academic success over time.
Stephen Kotok is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research focuses on the extent that school climate, organization, school choice and segregation influence student learning and attainment.
Saki Ikoma is a researcher at American Institutes for Research (AIR). She works on research projects focused on analyzing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the High School Longitudinal Study (HSLS) and provides technical support to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Her research interests include professionalization of teaching, school climate, and professional learning communities (PLC) both within U.S. and between nations.
Katerina Bodovski is an Associate Professor of Educational Theory and Policy, Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include sociology of education, inequality of educational outcomes, parenting practices, and comparative and international education.