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Dropping Out of High School: The Role of School Organization and Structure

Authors: Valerie E. Lee, David T. Burkam
Date Published: January 13, 2001

Our results suggest that explanations for students dropping out of school before graduation that rely solely on students’ social background and school behaviors are incomplete. Although our research has demonstrated that both students’ social and academic background are associated with the likelihood of students dropping out of high school, the story does not (and should not) end there. The results of this study suggest that schools can exert important organizational effects on dropping out, above and beyond individual students’ behaviors and backgrounds.
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In this study, we explore how high schools, through their structures and organizations, may influence their students’ decisions about whether to stay in school until graduation or drop out. Traditional explanations for dropout behavior have focused on individual students’ social background and academic behaviors. What high schools might do to push out or hold in their students have been systematically ignored. Using a sample of 3,840 students in 190 urban and suburban high schools from the High School Effectiveness Supplement (HSES) of the NELS:88 study, we use hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) methods to explore school effects on dropping out, once students’ academic and social background has been taken into account. Our findings center on three features of secondary schools: curriculum, school size, and social relations. In schools whose curricula are composed mainly of academic courses, with few non-academic courses, students are less likely to drop out. Similarly, students in schools enrolling fewer than 1,500 students more often stay in school until graduation. Most important, students are less likely to drop out of high schools where relationships between teachers and students are consistently positive. The impact of positive teacher-student relations, however, is contingent upon the organizational and structural characteristics of high schools.

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