National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
Increasing Rates of School Completion
Moving From Policy and Research to Practice
A Manual for Policymakers, Administrators, and Educators
Part I: What Do We Know About Dropout Prevention?
What Does Current Thinking Tell Us About How to Address Dropout?
Dropping Out of School is a Process of Disengagement that Begins Early
The decision to leave school is typically not an instantaneous event (Finn,
1993). Many students who drop out are expressing an extreme form of disengagement
from school that has been foreshadowed by indicators of withdrawal (e.g., poor
attendance) and unsuccessful school experiences (e.g., academic or behavioral
difficulties) (Rumberger, 1995). These overt indicators of disengagement are
generally accompanied by feelings of alienation, a poor sense of belonging,
and general dislike for school (Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986).
The path leading toward school withdrawal begins early. Retrospective studies
show the identification of dropouts can be accomplished with reasonable accuracy
based on review of school performance (behavior, attendance, academics) during
the elementary years (Barrington & Hendricks, 1989).
Theoretical conceptualizations have helped elucidate the important role of
student engagement in school and learning and have drawn attention to key elements
of engagement such as student participation, identification, social bonding,
and personal investment in learning (Finn, 1993; Maehr & Midgley, 1996;
Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1989). Many theories have contributed
significantly to the development of interventions aimed at preventing dropout
and promoting school completion. Finn’s (1993) theory has been extremely
influential in supporting the notion that school engagement is integral to school
completion. His model of dropout prevention suggests students must both actively
participate in school and have a feeling of identification with school in order
for them to remain in school and graduate (see Figure 1). Student participation
includes behavioral indicators such as attending school, being prepared for
work, and being involved in extracurricular activities. The psychological indicators
of identification with school include the feelings and sense of belonging associated
with school engagement. Finn’s theory suggests that student participation
in activities is directly related to successful school performance, which promotes
identification with school.
Preventing Dropout or Enhancing School Completion?
Although dropout and school completion can be viewed as two sides of a single
issue, there are differences in meaning, orientation, and implications for intervention
research and practice.
Conceptually, school completion encompasses more than preventing dropout.
It is characterized by a strength-based orientation (vs. a deficit orientation),
a comprehensive interface of systems (vs. a narrowly defined intervention),
implementation over time (vs. implementation at a single period in time) and
creating a person-environment fit (vs. a programmatic “one size fits
all” orientation). School completion is oriented toward a longitudinal
focus, whereby interventions aim to promote a “good” outcome,
not simply prevent at “bad” outcome for students and society.
(Christenson et al., 2000, p. 472)
Rather than using a surface approach to increase attendance and temporarily
stem the tide of dropout, interventions designed to enhance school completion
address the core issues associated with student alienation and disengagement
from school. These kinds of interventions address underlying problems and teach
strategies and skills students can use to successfully meet academic, behavioral,
and psychological demands of the school environment—and complete school.
Importance of Student Engagement in School and Learning
In the past decade, engagement of alienated youth in school and learning has
emerged as a key component of prevention and intervention efforts (Grannis,
1994). Interventions supporting student engagement help students develop connections
with the learning environment across a variety of domains. Christenson (2002)
defines engagement as a multi-dimensional construct involving four types of
engagement and associated indicators.
- Academic engagement refers to time on task, academically engaged time,
or credit accrual.
- Behavioral engagement includes attendance, avoidance of suspension, classroom
participation, and involvement in extracurricular activities.
- Cognitive engagement involves internal indicators including processing
academic information or becoming a self-regulated learner.
- Psychological engagement includes identification with school or a sense
These indicators of engagement are influenced by the contexts of home, school,
and peers. For example, school policies and practices such as a positive school
climate or the quality of a teacher-student relationship can affect the degree
to which a student is engaged in school. Similarly, the provision of academic
or motivational support for learning by parents or family members can enhance
students’ connection with school and increase success in school. A focus
on factors that facilitate engagement is a promising approach to guide the development
of effective interventions promoting school completion. More and more studies
are recognizing the complex interplay between student, family, school, and community
variables in shaping students’ paths toward early school withdrawal or
successful school completion (Hess & Copeland, 2001; Valez & Saenz,
2001; Worrell & Hale, 2001).
1.19MB, 84 pages
Citation: Lehr, C. A., Johnson, D.
R., Bremer, C. D., Cosio, A., & Thompson, M. (2004). Essential
tools: Increasing rates of school completion: Moving from policy and research
to practice. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute
on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.
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