The Dropout Problem

My high school, where I teach math and engineering, had the dubious honor of being featured in a recent article by Richard Whitmire for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

As an example, let’s take Baltimore’s Patterson High School, located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. If you showed up to recruit the Class of 2009 on graduation day, you would have found 164 female and 107 male students. A quirk of birthrates? Not exactly. Had you checked on the ninth-grade class there in September 2008, you would have found 278 girls and 400 boys.

At this point you’ve probably guessed the cause: Incoming ninth-grade boys unprepared for the college-track rigors of high school get slammed and held back for a repeat “experience.”

When I first came to Patterson four years ago, I taught Algebra I (with Data Analysis) in the ninth grade academy, where I experienced the high rate of attrition first-hand.  I taught roughly 75 students that year (all year, in 90 minute blocks, to help prepare for the state’s high-stakes HSA tests).  By the end of the year, 25 of those students were gone:  2 or 3 had been transferred to other Algebra classes within the school; many had moved (within the city, out to the county, or in several cases to another state); some just stopped showing up for school until they were dropped from the rolls.  Another 25 failed my class, all but two due to excessive absences [those who failed averaged 88 days absent].  Since 9th grade Algebra and English classes are each required credits to become a tenth grader, these 25  became ninth grade repeaters.  Some have since dropped out or transferred to another school (I don’t always know which).  This leaves the final group, 25 students who passed my class, most of whom went on to become tenth graders at my school.

Roughly 3/4 of the failing group were boys.  Compare this to the passing group, which was split down the middle:  1/2 boys and 1/2 girls.  I attended the 2009 graduation ceremony Whitmire speaks of, and could see the gender discrepancy in very visual terms, since the young women and young men wear different color caps and gowns.

While the dropout problem for boys at my school (and at all Baltimore City schools) is extreme, girls are not immune.  In the engineering pathway, in particular, we struggle to recruit and retain our female students, who are outnumbered by their male classmates at all grades.  We have been making steady progress, but still have a ways to go.  On a whole-school basis, take a look at the numbers of 9th grade girls vs. graduating senior girls (278 vs. 164) that Whitmire presents.  Now, I know these are not directly comparable because they come from different student cohorts; still, from my experience they are representative.  Each year, we have 500 incoming ninth graders, but only 250 seniors graduate.  A large part of this is due to student/family mobility, but a large part is also due to students dropping out, which peaks in the 9th-10th grades.  My school and Baltimore City as a whole has a dropout problem for both genders.

No firm conclusion to express here.  These numbers (and the human situation they represent) are depressing.  Joanne Jacobs suggests that “catch-up middle schools” and more access to vocational pathways could be part of the solution.  Whitmire, in the quoted article,  offers four steps colleges and universities can take to address the crises of 9th grade and beyond.  Our school system in Baltimore has made strides at recruiting dropouts to come back into schools through the “Great Kids Come Back” program.

I hope some of these strategies help.  This spring, when the students I taught my first year are scheduled to graduate, I shall attend their graduation.  The math teacher in me will be counting how many of my 75 students made it.



Filed under teaching

5 responses to “The Dropout Problem

  1. I don’t think Whitmire is saying that girls are immune to these traps and failings. But he’s focusing on the disproportionate rate of boys failing because that’s what he does.

    It’s not an article about boys failing out of high school, it’s about boys failing (and being failed by) all levels of the educational system, which culminates in the 40/60 (or worse) splits in college enrollment. He’s got a lot more at his blog: Why Boys Fail.

    • nyates314

      Agreed. And I’m not arguing with his main point. Rather, I used his citation of statistics from my high school as a starting point for reflecting on my own experiences with students failing and/or dropping out. Thanks for the blog link – I shall add it to my RSS Reader.

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