Dropout prevention demands global attention & local action, say experts at CIES

By Jillian Slutzker

March 10, 2016

Vancouver—Nearly 9 out of 10 primary school-aged children in developing countries were enrolled in school in 2015, a remarkable achievement. But before they finish primary school, one out of six students will drop out. In secondary school, one-third of students will leave before graduating.

“We’ve gotten kids into school. We’ve just failed to keep them there,” said Karen Tietjen, Technical Director of Creative Associates International’s Instructional Systems team and Principal Investigator for the USAID School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program, which Creative carried out in Cambodia, India, Tajikistan and Timor-Leste. Tietjen was a presenter at the Comparative and International Education Society’s conference in Vancouver on March 9,

Dropout is a global problem, including in the U.S. where nearly 20 percent of high school students leave school before graduation, she explained.

With nearly 124 million out-of-school children and adolescents worldwide, according to UNESCO—many of whom were once enrolled—the consequences of dropout are monumental, she said. Dropouts have poorer health outcomes, lower earning potential, lower rates of participation in civic activity and higher substance abuse rates, among other challenges.

“How can we get more traction on this issues as an advocacy issue we see of vital importance?” asked Albert Motivans, head of Education Statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. “We’ve let this group down.”

Motivans recommended aligning the issue of dropout to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which emphasize access and equity.

Keeping kids in school certainly demands the attention of the global education community. Tietjen said this requires a holistic look at the multiple factors that affect a student—the child herself, the family environment, the school, the community and a range of policies, including social, health, child rights, labor and education.

“In order to understand the causes of dropout you need to look at each of these aspects,” she said. “Dropout is really not caused by a single factor. It’s a whole variety of factors that come together.”

Creative shares lessons learned from USAID dropout prevention pilot

Tietjen presented findings from a five-year, four-country applied research project, called the School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program, which aimed at providing evidence-based solutions to mitigate dropout from primary and secondary school. The project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The project’s initial situational analysis in Cambodia, India, Tajikistan and Timor Leste showed that in addition to economic reasons, some of the main factors behind dropout included students feeling that school was an unwelcoming, hostile environment and poor academic performance.

“Kids were more or less being pushed out of school,” said Tietjen.

To address these factors, the project tested interventions to make school more engaging, like computer labs, enrichment programs and after school tutoring in 507 treatment schools across the four countries.

“We also found that students became more engaged in school. They felt more that they belonged. They liked school better,” she said.

The project also implemented a low-cost Early Warning System that identifies at-risk students. It also enhances schools’ ability to respond to their needs in partnership with families and communities, who are motivated and informed through open houses, home visits, phone calls and other outreach.

The research showed that kids at risk of dropout and children who had dropped out were distinguished by high rates of absenteeism, Tietjen explained. The Early Warning System, which tracked absenteeism, behavior and coursework helped flag signs of trouble early so teachers and families could intervene. Tietjen calls the Early Warning System “the cornerstone” of dropout prevention.

“If a child is absent for more than a couple of days, you need to act on that as a teacher or a school committee. You need to find out what’s going on,” she said.

The study, which showed statistically significant results in reducing dropout in Cambodia, also produced key findings on the value of increasing family and community support for students.

When adults became engaged in keeping students in school “students reported that they believed they had greater support from parents [in Cambodia and in India.] If there was a caring adult, it made a huge difference” said Tietjen.

Another critical takeaway form the study, she said, is that dropout prevention must start from the first day of school and should be part of routine activities.

For resources from the School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program visit, http://dropoutpreventionlab.com/en

Connecting refugees & repetition to dropout

In addition to the children who may leave school due to economic, academic, social or other issues, there are millions more children who are out-of-school due to conflict.

When we speak about dropout, we must also include this vulnerable group of learners, said panelist Anita Reilly, Education Adviser at the International Rescue Committee.

For example, before Syria’s civil war nearly all children were in school, Reilly said. Today, some 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school. These displaced children often face barriers of access to education and may encounter legal or social obstacles to enrolling in school in a host country.

For displaced children who have experienced severe trauma, the toxic stress of conflict may in fact alter brain chemistry and reduce their ability to learn, Reilly explained.

“When children need education interventions the most. They’re most likely to be out of school,” she said.

In other contexts, children who repeat a grade may be at risk for later dropping out, said Elena Vinogradova, Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at Education Development Center. If educators are going to step up efforts to stem dropout, we must also pay attention to students who repeat grades.

“Poor achievement and poor attendance results in repetition,” she said. “Repetition is a pathway to dropout. This is probably our last opportunity to catch those kids before they drop out.”

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