Research demonstrates particular risk factors that impact a student’s decision to stay in school. These include, but are not limited to: academic failure, low socio-economic status and behavioural problems[i]. Other risk factors can include: family organizational problems, little emotional support from parents[ii], and the increasing disengagement among students at school. The harsh reality is that, for many students, staying in school and success in school means having to suppress personal identities to act within the traditional school paradigms of what a ‘good’ student looks like[iii].
The most significant education paradigms are those that include building strong relationships – beginning in early elementary school – to prevent future dropouts. The earlier that new education paradigms can emerge to support ‘at-risk’ students, the better the prognosis for their graduation. Strong relationship are those that foster student voice, involve students in real decisions, and create equitable power distributions. Strong schools also provide inclusive cultures, authentic assessments, curricula related to students’ lives, and are respectful of learning as a social process with the relationships being the major priorities[iv]. But first, we must recognize our traditional views about what school is, before we can map out new education paradigms to support at-risk students.
We know that the foundations of 19th-century schooling are based on standardized tests, textbooks, classroom management and organization strategies, and mandatory curriculum outcomes. Canada’s modern school systems are still based on the same hierarchical philosophies espoused by Egerton Ryerson[v] where schools are organized with the principal at the top, teachers in the middle, and students at the bottom. We’re also still using common school texts as advocated for by Ryerson himself. We reward behavioural outcomes with grades and other forms of reinforcing compliance from our students – embedded beliefs that we need to maintain group compliance for efficient organization, drill, memorization and standardized tests. However, in following this paradigm, we do a great disservice to those students who are at-risk. We inadvertently send strong messages that if you do not comply: “you will be a failure”, or that “you are a failure”. Attention is given to prescribed units of study learned in isolation of subject areas that are discrete and separate from each other, and in groups of same-aged peers. Families and communities are rarely included, and fixed mindsets are the norm where it is difficult if not impossible to move from your ‘rank’ in school i.e., who is at the top, who is in the middle and who is at the bottom. As a result, students who are at risk are left with little leeway for success in terms of the traditional school paradigm.
By contrast, if we focus on new paradigms of education that incorporate key strategies including relationship building, then I believe that students have a greater chance of graduating. Key strategies can include a deeper focus on student voice, inclusion, authentic learning and assessment, and involvement of knowledge from families and communities. We need to enable ourselves to step away from the limits of traditional schooling to focus on educating under the assumption that each child is individual, valued, and whole, with special needs to be met. Within this new paradigm, there would be great flexibility in terms of time, space and what is learned. Students would work on their own collaborative inquiries; those that need open-ended tasks would have access while others would receive more closed tasks. Education wouldn’t be limited to the school day, and it could also capitalize on after-hours aspects with parents and families. It is of course a complex problem with complex solutions. However, I think that this warrants increased attention to target specific variables beginning in early elementary school.
Another factor that needs to be addressed is that at-risk students do not see themselves reflected in their teachers. It may behoove us to consider alternate methods of choosing the teachers in our system, to include counsellors, family and community members, and to ensure a wider demographic of teachers who have lived experiences of at-risk students and can be positive models of instruction.
Schools are gradually aligning with the principles of the Education Paradigm that embody Community, Culture, Caring, and Character Education. Yet, they systematically remain unchanged, with continued vested interests in standardized testing results, separate subject areas and isolated units of study, funding for specific diagnoses and labels instead of the whole child, fixed schedules, grades and disciplinary tactics that propel the traditional School Paradigm forward. However, to promote a school system with fewer dropouts, education paradigms need to evolve to emphasize relationships and recognize traditional and contemporary contributions of individuals, families and communities from all walks of life.
[i] Suhyun, S. J. (2007). Risk Factors and Levels of Risk for High School Dropouts. Professional School Counseling , 10 (3), 297-306.
[ii] Fortin, L. M. (2006). Typology of students at risk of dropping out of school: Description by personal, family and school factors. European Journal of Psychology of Education , XXI (4), 363-383.
[iii] Smyth, J. (2006). ‘When students have power’: student engagement, student voice, and the possibilities for school reform around ‘dropping out’ of school. International Journal of Leadership in Education , 9 (4), 285-298.
[v] Egerton Ryerson. (2015). Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egerton_Ryerson