Switching Schools, Splintering Families

School administrators have recognized for some time that students are particularly likely to drop out of high school if they move from one school to another.  However, a study recently completed at Johns Hopkins University indicates that the likelihood that students will drop out of high school depends less on whether they have moved to a new school than on whether their parents have moved apart. The authors of this new study begin their investigation into why young people drop out of high school well aware that in twenty-first-century America “the focus has shifted to the importance of a college degree for increasing the chances of attaining success.” Yet they insist that “the value of a high school diploma has never been greater. Over the past 25 years, earnings differences between high school graduates and high school dropouts have grown.” Considerable evidence indicates that young people who leave high school without a diploma may well “find themselves without the skills to succeed in a competitive U.S. labor market that increasingly rewards skills and education” and may end up “beset by other problems—including imprisonment, poor heath, and having children who are also at risk of high school dropout, to name a few.” To quantify the degree to which switching schools increases the likelihood of students’ dropping out, the Johns Hopkins scholars parse data from a nationally representative sample of students initially surveyed in 1996 at ages twelve to sixteen and then tracked thereafter. As expected, an elevated drop-out rate emerges for students who shifted schools, but the researchers recognize that they must assess a shift in schools in context. And that context is powerfully affected by students’ family structure. Indeed, family structure appears as a prime determiner both of whether students shift schools and of how successful those students are in dealing with the consequences if they do shift schools. Statistical comparis
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