This short advert comes via Sociological Images on the The Society Pages where it is highlighted for its problematic reduction of high school dropouts to individual laziness. Declaring that “every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of high school” it implores an African-American teenager to “wake up” and continue in school in order to avoid an uncertain future.
The advert is problematic for reducing the factors that contribute to the high dropout rate in some US high schools to individual motivation. It may be tempting to conclude that individual young people are responsible for their own educational fate. They should simply wake up and get themselves to school. It is presented as a personal choice. Consequently, educational failure can be seen as an individual responsibility.
However, if we have a sociological imagination to draw on, we can explore other explanations and come to an understanding that the lived experiences of individuals are inextricably linked to wider, social factors. So, in this case, we know that individual responsibility for high school dropout rates in parts of the USA is not supported by the evidence.
A recent study by Leventhal-Weiner and Wallace (2011) highlighted the differences in dropout rates between different ethnic groups in the USA. Overall, Hispanic students drop out at a rate twice that of Blacks, who, in turn drop out at a rate approaching twice that of Whites. As they point out in their research, the schools with the highest rate of dropouts are to be found in the poorest communities in US urban areas, with poor employment prospects, poverty, residential instability and low level of education in the community, all to varying extents contributing to high dropout rates.
This is not to say that individuals are determined by these structural factors. Individuals have agency, though that agency might be constrained by their social context. Indeed, across the USA there are attempts to mitigate the impact of the social context of pupils considered at risk of dropping out by motivating students and building resilience. However, as Hopson and Lee (2011:2227) argue:
“Policies that place the responsibility for academic success of students living in poverty solely in the hands of schools and teachers prevent meaningful progress.”
In other words, interventions at school or individual level, while they might mitigate some effects of poverty are no panacea. Nothing short of structural reform will solve this problem.
Hopson, L. M and Lee, E (2011) ‘Mitigating the effect of family poverty on academic and behavioural outcomes: The role of school climate in middle and high school’, Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 11, 2221-2229
Leventhal-Weiner, R and Wallace, M (2011) ‘Racial differences in high school dropout rates: An analysis of U.S. Metropolitan areas’, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 29, 4, 393-413