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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).

Influential Theories

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 of belonging.

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).

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Introduction & Getting Started

Part I: What Do We Know About Dropout Prevention?

Part II: How Were Sample Intervention Programs Selected?

  • The Need for Examples of Effective Interventions
  • Search Process & Initial Criteria
  • Raising the Bar
  • Final Parameters for Selection
  • Abstracts: Coding & Definitions

Part III: What Works in Dropout Prevention?

Part IV: Where Else Can I Go for More Information?

  • Related Resources & Organizations
  • Journal Articles & Related Publications
  • Web Sites Providing Data on Dropout Rates

Appendix: Reproducible Handouts on Dropout Prevention


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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.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternative formats. For additional copies of this publication, or to request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.