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MARCH 1990


Female Dropouts: The Challenge

by Marc Posner
Education Development Center (EDC), Inc.

Well over two million American girls and women now between the ages of 14 and 24 are high school dropouts. Girls who drop out before receiving a high school diploma usually do so during adolescence, a period in which young people generally do not consider the long-range consequences of their actions. But dropping out of school has adverse consequences that can last a lifetime. This is especially true for girls, who are less likely than boys to return to school, or obtain a general equivalency diploma, once they have dropped out.1

Strong link to work options

Education is a fundamental key to employment in America. As the agriculutral and heavy industries that once provided the majority of Americans with jobs have given way to an economy characterized by professional, service, and technical occupations, the jobs available to those without a high school diploma have dwindled. Dropouts have an unemployment rate more than double that of high school graduates and constitute a substantial proportion of the long-term unemployed.

Higher paying jobs generally require a high school diploma, if not postsecondary academic or vocational education. High school dropouts earn, on the average, only 70 percent of what graduates make. Those who drop out before high school earn only 40 percent of what graduates do.2 And, in a job market where the struggle for women's equity is far from complete, female dropouts suffer a double disadvantage. The average woman still earns only 65 cents for every dollar earned by a man; a female dropout makes, on average, only 50 cents for every dollar earned by a man with the same level of education.3

Women who fail to complete high school are penalized both by their lack of education and by the still prevalent myth that men are the primary source of income for most families. The reality is that 67 percent of American women work, making up over half the civilian labor force. Sixty percent of these women are single, separated, divorced, widowed, or come from households in which the husband's yearly earning is less than $15,000. Half of all mothers work outside the home: 65 percent of mothers with children under 18 and 75 percent of divorced mothers work to support themselves and their children. Fifty-two percent of the families at or below the poverty level are headed by women.

Poverty is a prime indicator

Girls from poor families must overcome an especially difficult set of obstacles to successfully complete school. Poverty is the primary factor associated with dropping out. Minority groups that are disproportionally represented in the lower income brackets, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, have high drop-out rates. The drop-out rate among people of color in urban school districts can be staggering, ranging from 40 to over 60 percent.4 Women of color who drop out of school not only lack the educational prerequisites for many jobs, but also face both gender and racial discrimination.

Dropping out of school is not an arbitrary act. Girls who drop out are often faced with a school and social environment that impels them toward noncompletion. Poverty, and all the disadvantages that poverty entails, is the primary indicator of school non-completion.

Schools less responsive to females' needs

Despite the advances made in the last thirty years, our schools are still primarily oriented toward the white, male student. Research indicates that schools, and teachers (both male and female), are still more responsive to boys, their learning styles, their needs, and their futures, than they are to female students. The myth that educational achievement is more important for boys (because they will become the primary breadwinners in families) often causes teachers to place male educational needs above those of their female students. Research has demonstrated that the "attention is directly correlated to achievenment." That is, students to whom teachers pay more attention consistently do better. Research also demonstrates that teachers, regardless of sex, generally pay less attention to girl students than boys.5

In America, and in American schools, girls are socialized to be cooperative, boys to be assertive. Girls tend to be penalized for assertive behavior (such as calling out answers in class without raising their hands) for which boys are rewarded.6 Whatever the merits of cooperation (and their are many), schools and workplaces generally reward just that kind of assertiveness that girls are taught to avoid. Such practices restrict girls' abilities to achieve in school and promote the internalization of a passivity that adversely affects their opportunities for both academic and vocational advancement.

Teachers and other school staff-both consciously and unconsciously-often expect more from boys, and teach in ways that turn these expectations into self-fulfilling prophecies. Through explicit and subtle behaviors, they often reinforce the myth that women do not do well in mathematics and science, reinforcing math and science anxiety among their female pupils and contributing to failure in these subjects. When internalized by girl students, these expectations lower self-esteem and create a sense of "learned helplessness" that can contribute to academic failure and dropout.

The relationship between teenage pregnancy and school noncompletion is still being debated. We know that dropout and teenage pregnancy are associated with many of the same risk factors, including poverty, low self-esteem, and the educational attainment of a girl's parents. We also know that 40 percent of female dropouts do so during a pregnancy and that 50 percent of teenage pregnancies occur to dropouts. Although there is no hard evidence on this question, it would seem reasonable to assume that the provision of appropriate services, including childcare, for pregnant teenagers and young mothers, will increase their chances of remaining in school.

Institutional change needed

There are many other things that schools and teachers can do to lower the drop-out rate among girls. As one researcher wrote, "While schools cannot change the social or economic backgrounds of students, they do have choices reagrding the official response to school-based factors associated with dropping out."7 While many of these strategies (such as the provision of bilingual educational programs, remedial educatio and special tutoring, and self-esteem enhancement programs) are beneficial for both male and female students, schools must ensure that gender-appropriate dropout prevention activities exist to combat those gender-specific obstacles that girls must overcome to complete their high school education.

The continued existence of gender discrimination within the educational system demands an institutional response. Administrators, teachers, and counselors must be made aware of the research about the causes and consequences of female dropout. An essential component of any cohesive attempt to reduce the drop-out rate among girls is the provision of a bias-free academic environment to ensure that girls achieve the same level of educational and economic opportunity as do their male counterparts. Training teachers, counselors, and administrators to identify and correct those attitudes and practices that unfairly penalize their female students is an important step toward both sex equity in education and the reduction of dropout among girls.


  1. J. Earle, Female Dropouts: A New Perspective. Newton, Mass.: WEEA Publishing Center/EDC, 1989.
  2. A. Pallas, School Dropouts in the United States. Issue paper. Washington, D.C.: Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 1987.
  3. Women in the Workforce. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, 1987.
  4. Racial and Ethnic High School Dropout Rate in NYC. Summary report. New York: Aspira of New York, 1983; C. Kyle, J. Lane, J. Sween, and A. Triana, We Have a Choice: Students at Risk of Leaving Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: DePaul University, Chicago Area Studies Center, Center for Research on Hispanics, March, 1986.
  5. D. Grayson and M. Martin, Gender/Ethnic Expectations and Student Achievement. Earlham, Ia.: GrayMill Foundation, 1988.
  6. M. Sadker and D. Sadker, "Sexism in the Classroom from Grade School to Graduate School." Phi Delta Kappan, March 1986: 512-15.
  7. A. Wheelock, "Dropping Out: What the Reseach Says." Equity and Choice, Fall 1986: 7-11.

Resources: WEEA Materials Key to Dropout Prevention for Girls

To order WEEA publications, call 800-793-5076.
Or send your request with payment including $3.50
shipping for the first item, + $0.80 for each additional, to:
PO Box 1020
Sewickley, PA 15143-1020.

Female dropouts tend to be invisible. In schools structured to meet the needs of male students or to address the issues raised by male dropouts, the special needs of females at risk are often overlooked or unrecognized. But, once those factors that affect at-risk girls are recognized, appropriate measures can be taken to reduce their drop-out/push-out rate. It is issues such as these that WEEA projects attempt to address. As the only program currently funded by the U.S. Department of Education to create model programs that increase education options for women and girls, the WEEA Program has been instrumental in developing a body of resources that are directly applicable to the needs of at-risk females.

For instnce, Female Dropouts: A New Perspective is the first examination of the special issues that affect at-risk females. The research for this project was funded byt a 1986 grant to the National association of State Boards of Education. Not only does this book raise the discussion of girls' needs to national attention, it offers valuable and practical recommendations for programs that dealt with girls at risk. In her book, Dr. Janice Earle identifies five factors most likely to keep young women in school: academic encouragement, activities to enhance self-esteem, coordination of services for academic and nonacademic needs, bias-free interactions with teachers and administrators, and encouragement to consider or enroll in nontraditional careers.

Using Earle's five success factors as guides, WEEA materials can be utilized by systems seeking to effectively address the issue of female dropouts. All WEEA materials are gender-fair and designed to reduce sex-role stereotyping in all aspects of education. Each product incorporates a bias-free methodology that enhances both female participation in classes and encourages new behaviors on the part of teachers.

Earle and others have pointed out that teacher expectation plays a primary role in student success. Since its development with the help of a WEEA grant, the Gender/Ethinc Expectations and Student Achievement (GESA) Program has been successfully raising teacher awareness and encouraging new, positive, gender- and race-fair classroom teaching in thousands of sites across the country. As developers Dolores Grayson and Mary Martin have explained, GESA is carefully designed to help teachers make constructive changes in the way they interact with students and, in so doing, to free themselves from stereotypic race and gender role expectations. GESA independent evaluations have shown the positive impact of equity on educational excellence and the implication for at-risk females. For instance, students in classes taught by teachers participating in GESA achieved a mean gain of 2.1 percent in reading and 7.0 percent in math as assessed by the California Test of Basic Skills.

As part of academic encouragement, Earle recommends that instructional strategies incorporate the group activities and collaboration that complement female cognitive development, such as cooperative learning or specialized attention. Curriculum models that focus on the special needs and interests of females are particularly important.

An example of this occurs within math classes around the country on a daily basis. While our society touts the importance of mathematics for all students, there is still a general feeling in school and in many homes that math and science are "male" classes. Math and science classes are often structured in ways that make mathematics less appealing to girls. For instance, a WEEA-funded report by PEER shows that in many schools compter competency is expected of males and classes are designed to further that. The report quotes a Bank Street College finding that boys get more status for being good at the computer.

"It's the intellectual equivalent of football," stated the research. "These data simply confirm the persistence of sex stereotyped expectations and biased assumptions that discourge girls, both subtly and overtly, from aggressive participation in both compter education and games."

In a WEEA curriculum, Add-Ventures for Girls: Building a Math Confidence, Dr. Margaret Franklin uses "fun," hands-on activities to make math exciting for middle school girls. Activities and information on teacher-student interaction patterns, girls' learning styles, and the importance of parent involvement help teachers create an environment that makes math work for girls just at the time when traditional curricula often work to deflate girls' math interests.

A gender-fair approach to science education is also available through another new publication, Science EQUALS Success. The book, developed and field-tested by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina and the Charlotte Science Museums, contains over thirty "hands-on", discovery-oriented science activities designed especially for girls and students of color in grades 4-9. Built on the nationally acclaimed EQUALS Program, the curriculum incorporates four basic strategies-cooperative learning, problem solving, spatial skills, and career awareness-into an exciting exploration of science that reduces the stereotyped perception of who can do well in science.

Beyond curriculum changes, it is the personal one-on-one contacts that often make the difference in whether or not a girl remains in school. Mentoring-now one of the most talked about processes to engage students in remaining in school-can be either a wonderful experience of affirmation and discovery, or a disaster. Often the difference between success and failure is the training mentors receive and the structure of the mentoring program itself. As the Mentor Training Project in Portland, Oregon, showed in its WEEA project, providing training and materials for mentor is the key to a successful program. The project, which trained minority career women to be effective mentors for minority high school girls, developed Hand in Hand: Mentoring Young Women, one of the first products available nationally that deals with the specific mentoring needs of minority girls, girls who are often most at risk of early leaving.

Publishing Information:

The WEEA Digest is published by the
WEEA Publishing Center, a project at Education
Development Center, Inc., under contract with the
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement. Opinions expressed
herein do not necessarily reflect the position of
the U.S. Department of Education and no official
endorsement should be inferred.

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