Diversity, Engagement, Equity, Pathways, Promising Practices, School Community

Reflections on “Dropping Out” of School

Meeting the challenge of youth engagement

What are the transformative possibilities of schooling and education today? I answer this question with two words: hope and caring. I am hopeful that we can begin to address the problem of school dropouts. I also believe strongly that most educators care about and want the best for their students. However, as many educators have also noted, sometimes our good intentions are not enough. We need to focus on the effects and outcomes of our practices.1 It is imperative that as educators and practitioners, we take students’ perceptions seriously and examine our practices and beliefs to ensure that students get to know who we truly are, that we do care about learning, teaching and administration of education and that we are intent on creating an inclusive learning environment for all.

In the early 1990s, I led a longitudinal study examining Black youths and the Ontario public school system. We concluded that the term “push out” was more appropriate than “drop out.”2 Our contention was not that educators literally push students out of the door. However, the messages sent by schools – what is valued and deemed legitimate knowledge, what is discussed or not discussed in classrooms, what experiences and identities count or do not count, and how students are perceived by educators – lead a fair number of Black youth to feel unwelcome and, consequently, become disengaged. It is no longer acceptable for educators and local communities to accept dropping out as simply a matter of individual responsibility. So how do we interrogate conventional knowledge?

Tuck, in an excellent read, discusses how schools push out students through humiliating experiences and assaults on learners’ dignities such that these students no longer want to be in school. She reasons that U.S. schools produce dropping out as a “dialectic of humiliating ironies and dangerous dignities”3 that stem from educational practices including assessments, exit exams, testing, and school rule enforcements that students find very humiliating. Clearly, when students leave school prematurely they are fully aware of the consequences of their decision in the context of the social and cultural capital assigned to education. Therefore, we must seek to understand why students make these decisions and acknowledge the interplay of institutional and personal responsibilities when accounting for school dropouts.

What educational research in Ontario tells us

Statistics can help us establish the nature and context of a problem. However, considering the general reluctance to engage with race, recent statistics often employ coded language to speak about the experiences of racialized students. For example, studies often focus on language, country of origin, length of time in Canada, or citizenship status as it relates to student disengagement. These studies can provide a glimpse into the issue, though without an honest conversation about the role of race, it remains an incomplete picture.

Research conducted by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) on dropping out by key languages shows that Portuguese-, Spanish-, and Somali-speaking students leave school at the highest rates: 38 percent, 37.5 percent, and 35.1 percent respectively.4 By region of birth, English-speaking Caribbean and Central/South American and Mexican students leave at the highest rates, 38 percent and 37 percent.5 Combined with earlier statistics, these indicate issues that extend above and beyond language and place of origin and point, instead, towards a hostile learning environment for racialized students.

Educational research on the performance of Ontario high school students shows that despite successes, Black/African-Canadians, First Nations/Aboriginals, and Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking students are at the forefront of student disengagement from school.6 Disproportionate numbers of students from these groups are also enrolled in special education and non-university stream programs.7 Even for those students alleged to be doing well (e.g. Asian “model minority” students) we observe narrow fields of academic choices, such as the over-subscription in science/mathematics-related occupations.8

But the figures do not tell us about the human side of dropping out. In our study, we noted the human dimensions to the story of Black and minority youth disengagement from school. These are stories of personal struggles, of family and home hardships, socialization and peer culture struggles – of youth with stolen dreams and unmet expectations who develop a lack of faith in the system. There are also the challenges of navigating the school system, unfriendly and unwelcoming schooling environments, low teacher expectations of minority students, the differential treatment by race, gender, sexuality or class, and the lack of curricular, pedagogic and instructional sophistication.9 For Black/African students, the cost of school/academic success may be one’s identity and emotional stability.10 The process of disengagement starts early in the life of the student, culminating in the decision to leave school prematurely.

This calls for a critical interrogation of the structures and processes of educational delivery. Such interrogation allows us to hold systems accountable while also calling for community and parental responsibility. Producing school success is more than an individual undertaking. In asking parents and communities to share responsibility for the education of their children, we must avoid pathologizing families, individual learners and their communities. Such pathologies only reinforce constructed or false negatives of marginalized (working class and racialized) communities and stifle counter-debate. We often throw out the term “taking responsibility” without situating discussions with the recognition that taking on responsibility is only possible when we have the means to support our actions. It easy to sit in the comfort of one’s living room and say, “Gee… these people must take responsibility.”

Hence, in addressing youth dropping out of school we can maintain blind spots on the daily struggles and challenges of families and their resilience to succeed against all odds – and fail to learn from these real-life struggles. We do not value counter- and oppositional stances; yet, it is these counter-stances and strategies of resilience that offer crucial lessons for re-visioning education and thereby promoting change.

Dropping out: philosophical contentions

Rather than pinpoint specific causes and factors contributing to youth dropping out of school, I want now to work with a different intellectual gaze, highlighting some philosophical contentions. I see such analysis as part of a needed paradigmatic shift to understand schooling and education. A major discursive position I am taking is that dropping out is actually a consequence of the structure of the Euro-Canadian/American educational school system, and the collective inability or failure to look at its foundations. The foundation itself contributes to students dropping out – yet we are adding stories to a weak foundation rather than building a new one.

The current school system focuses on individual excellence and success. There is a heavy play on meritocracy, which promotes and sustains rugged individualism and competition. The values and credentials privileged by the Euro-American school system simply mask Whiteness, White power and privilege as the norm. What is presented as “universal” is, in fact, the particularity of the dominant. The values of the dominant that undergird the educational system do not hold for everyone. They are being questioned not because they are wrong, but because they are not universally tenable. They are not inclusive and we need to cultivate values shared by all of our humanity.

We are all in a collective struggle to transform our communities; we are each implicated in the existing inequities.

The implication for dropping out is that the absence of a “school community of learners” they can identify with makes some students feel alienated and disengaged. For example, while a competitive mode may help generate individual brilliance and creativity, it does not necessarily create sustainable communities for everyone. We need to bring back a positive reading to “community.”

It’s important to recognize that we are all in a collective struggle to transform our communities; we are each implicated in the existing inequities. As an educational response we must have all hands on deck, with value given to everyone’s knowledge, history, experience and contributions. This includes students, educators, administrators, policy makers, private, business and public sectors and parents, guardians, community workers and our varied communities – and especially dropouts. We cannot find solutions outside the contributions, experiences and voices of the school dropouts themselves.

Integrating learners into society is seen as an important mission of school. In Canada, there is unquestioned faith in integration, which is rooted in the multicultural paradigm. Our approach to integration is one size fits all. Those who do not fit are cast aside. But we must begin to ask: Integration for whom, how and at what/whose expense? Those who drop out do not find a place in the school system as currently designed. One size cannot fit all. Multiple visions of schooling, including educational innovations and initiatives from marginalized communities, must be envisaged and encouraged. They must equally be valued, promoted and supported. At the policy level, it is troubling to see how a blind faith in integration continues to lead even non-dominant, immigrant, racial minority, and Indigenous learners along the path of “cultural destruction.”

We cannot hope for success while continuing to do the same thing that is failing us. The denial of White dominance distorts reality and does not allow us to put our collective hearts and minds together to find solutions. We have not developed any explicit investment in creating a level playing field. This is because we have failed to recognize the uneven and inequitable circumstances in which education is embedded – the a priori inequality existing among students, within school cultures and educational discourse and in the Euro-American curricula. Teaching and learning should be about decolonizing minds, bodies, souls and spirits to be more critical of ourselves and of our communities.

Strategies for student retention

Dropping out of school is fundamentally a problem of youth disengagement from and disaffection with school. While solutions must embrace school, home and community connections, there are also some concrete strategies that educators and administrators can undertake to retain students in schools.

Many of the strategies discussed here relate to inclusion issues. I am increasingly skeptical of the bland and depoliticized talk of inclusion that ignores issues of power, transparency and accountability. I believe inclusion should lead to structural transformation rather than simply adding to what already exists, since oftentimes what already exists is the source of the problem. Instead, I want to work with “radical inclusion.” We need to recognize the space in between ourselves and others, where all the history, pain, trauma, resistance and love live, in order to see inclusion as about a wholeness, completeness and varied, complex communities.

Education must work with students’ lived experiences, myriad identities, histories, cultures, and knowledge bases – in other words, it must be meaningful and relevant to the students themselves. A holistic education should encompass the material, social, cultural, political, physical, psychological, spiritual and metaphysical realms of learners’ existence, including teaching about society, culture and Nature (i.e. environments and Lands). We need to reclaim multiple and multi-centric ways of knowing. Such knowledges are key to affirming learners’ and educators’ myriad identities, histories and social contexts of learning and teaching; promoting Indigenous cultures and language heritages; and addressing broader questions of curricular, instructional and pedagogic relevance.

All students must feel included and welcome in our schools. Identity is linked with knowledge production. Teaching must recognize the myriad identities that our learners bring to classrooms (e.g. racial, gendered, classed, sexual, (dis)abled). These social differences implicate schooling and are consequential for educational outcomes. Therefore, educators should teach about social difference as sites of power, strength and identity. Teaching must engage the home and community cultures of students. Local and Indigenous languages of learners must be broached alongside teaching in dominant lan-guages. Students must see themselves reflected in the school culture and in the visual and physical landscape of their schools. A diverse teaching and administrative staff will allow students to identity with people in positions of power and influence as equally coming from their own communities.

It is important for educators to access pertinent resources for developing an inclusive curriculum. Students themselves can be used as knowledge holders of their own experiences; parents, Elders, and guest speakers from diverse backgrounds can be welcomed as teachers engaging in multiple conversations with students and staff. Public conferences, seminars and community workshops, local print media and television, community bookstores and public libraries, and popular culture are all resources for youth education. These resources can be employed with a discussion of their social contexts and histories as entry points of dialogues.

Nasir highlights “four aspects of teaching and learning that support this sense of belonging and identification: fostering respectful relationships, making mistakes acceptable, giving learners defined roles, and offering learners ways to participate that incorporate aspects of themselves.”11 These strategies hold lessons for the classroom. Fostering respectful relationships and making mistakes an acceptable part of the learning process can create cohesion, a sense of community, and build confidence by reframing failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. Defining informal roles based on interests and strengths gives learners a sense of expertise and a valued identity within the group.

Educators should strengthen students’ abilities to ask new and difficult questions in class. The students can begin by questioning their own selves and local communities, the school and wider society. Teaching should also emphasize learners’ responsibilities to their communities, peers and to themselves. Allowing all students to showcase their own voices and knowledges, and to reflect on and assess their own schooling, are important educational strategies of inclusion. Prioritizing students whose voices and knowledges are absent is critical. Educators can also examine their own classroom pedagogies, diversifying the curriculum through the infusion of multiple teaching methodologies. For example, there must be a consideration of more dialogical curriculum co-creation involving students, parents, local communities, and schools.12

Educators must re-conceptualize rigid Euro-centered evaluation and assessment methods and work with multiple definitions of success. Classrooms should promote collective successes, with evaluations taking into account how students are supporting each other. A failing class would be one that could not support all its members. We could evaluate on the basis of improvement. We can introduce peer reviews and grading, so that the teacher is not solely in control of grades and the hierarchies are less severe.

Educators can recognize and honour multiple ways of knowing and being by enabling students to be creative and present non-traditional papers (arts-based, multimedia).13 We can consider orality as an equal medium to written text. Educators must include community-based events, which often provide access to Elders or other “teachers,” as sites of learning. School-based learning becomes more meaningful and practical when students can connect it to community work.

These strategies allow students to develop a sense of ownership of their knowledge and knowledge creation process.

Decolonizing education is about looking critically at the structures and processes of educational delivery and changing the ways we teach, learn and administer education. Decolonizing education is about promoting counter and oppositional voices, knowledges and histories, bringing into focus the lived experiences of students who have been marginalized from the school system. Through inclusive practices that engage the diverse group of learners, schools can become welcoming spaces, and the resulting sense of belonging and ownership of the schooling process can help engage students and allow them to stay in school. It is difficult to understand why someone who feels welcome, valued, and engaged will decide to leave school prematurely.

Thanks to Kate Partridge of the Department of Social Justice, OISE/UT, for commenting on an earlier draft of this article.

En Bref – Comment peut-on revoir la scolarisation en fonction des besoins des élèves différents? Dans cet article, George J. Sefa Dei réfléchit aux liens existant entre le décrochage scolaire et les pratiqueséducatives (enseignement, pédagogie et initiatives liées au curriculum, ainsi que culture d’école) qui sont et peuvent être documentées par les apprenants, leurs histoires, identités, mémoires culturelles et patrimoines, ainsi que par leurs expériences et attentes de tous les jours. Il confronte des questions difficiles relatives au pouvoir, au discours et à la représentation des expériences des jeunes qui provoquent et contextualisent le décrochage scolaire. Il se demande comment nous pouvons commencer à démanteler les relations hiérarchiques du pouvoir liées à la scolarisation. Il examine également certains facteurs conventionnels menant au décrochage scolaire et suggère aux éducateurs et aux écoles des façons pouvant favoriser la rétention et la réussite. Il est reconnu que le milieu de scolarisation peut être inhospitalier pour les élèves ne faisant pas partie de la culture dominante (marginalisés par la race, le genre, la sexualité, la classe, etc.) et qu’en décolonisant l’éducation, plus d’élèves auront un sentiment d’appartenance et s’approprieront leur éducation.

Photo: Rich Legg (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, May 2015


1 M. Fine, Framing Dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public high school (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991).

2 G. J. S. Dei (with L. Holmes, J. Mazzuca, E. McIsaac, and R. Campbell), Drop Out or Push Out? The dynamics of Black students’ disengagement from school. Report submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 1995; G. J. S. Dei, J. Mazzuca, E. McIsaac, and J. Zine, Reconstructing “Dropout”: A critical ethnography of the dynamics of Black students’ disengagement from school (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

3 E. Tuck, “Humiliating Ironies and Dangerous Dignities: A Dialectic of school push out,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 24, no. 7 (2011): 817.

4 R. S. Brown, Research Report: The Grade 9 Cohort of Fall 2002: A five-year cohort study, 2002-2007 (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, 2008),16.www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/AboutUs/Research/The%205%20Yr%20Study%2002-07.pdf

5 R. S. Brown, Research Report (2008).

6 R. S. Brown, A Follow-Up of the Grade 9 Cohort of 1987 Every Secondary Student Survey Participants (Toronto: Toronto Board of Education, Research Services, Report No. 207, 1993); M. Cheng, M. Yau, and S. Ziegler, The Every Secondary Student Survey, Part II: Detailed profiles of Toronto secondary school students (Toronto: Toronto Board of Education, Research Services, Report No. 204, 1993).

7 R. S. Brown and G. Parekh, Research Report: Special Education: Structural overview and student demographics (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, 2010), 35.

8 M. Cheng, “Factors that Affect the Decisions of Racial/Ethnic Minorities to Enter and Stay in Teaching and their Implications for School Board’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Policies” (Ed.D diss., Department of Sociology and Equity Studies, OISE/UT, 2002). 

9 Fine, Framing Dropouts; Dei et al., Drop Out or Push Out?

10 Dei et al., Reconstructing “Dropout”; G. J. S. Dei, “Schooling and the Dilemma of Youth Disengagement,” McGill Journal of Education 38, no. 3 (2003): 241- 256.

11 N. Nasir, “Everyday Pedagogy: Lessons from basketball, track, and dominoes,” Phi Delta Kappan 89, no. 7 (2008): 530.

12 G. J. S. Dei, “Decolonizing the University Curriculum,” Socialist Studies/Etudes Socialistes 10, no. 2 (forthcoming: June 2015). www.socialiststudies.com

13 Dei, “Decolonizing the University Curriculum.”


Meet the Expert(s)

George J. Sefa Dei

George J. Sefa Dei (Nana Adusei Sefa Atweneboah I) is Professor of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), Director for the Centre for Integrative Studies at OISE/UT and Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of anti-racism, minority schooling, international development, anti-colonial thought and Indigenous knowledges systems. He has published extensively on African youth education, anti-racism, Indigenous knowledges and anti-colonial thought.

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