Study information:
Year of publication: 2011
Country: USA, Canada, UK
Design: Systematic literature review
Group: School children and adolescents
Age: 4-22, average 15 years
Gender: Boys and girls

Main findings:

The programmes seem to be effective in reducing early school leaving, regardless of content or type of programme. This means that preventive measures for reducing early school eating works.

The general dropout rate for all the students who were included in the studies was 21%. For the students participating in the dropout programmes, the average dropout rate was 13%.

For a dropout programme to be successful, we need to focus on the implementation of the programme, in order to adapt it to the local environment in the best possible way.

Written by: Lise Haveraaen, Randi W. Aas and Lisebet Skeie Skarpaas

A comprehensive literature review of studies examining the effect of different types of school dropout programmes found that no single programme appears to be better or more effective than others. However, the way the programme is implemented is crucial for the programme to be effective.

School dropout and early school leaving is a considerable problem in most Western countries. Early school leaving is associated with numerous detrimental consequences, including reduced physical and mental health, and increased probability of disability benefits and unemployment. Finding effective ways to reduce the high dropout rates is therefore an important objective.

There are numerous interventions and programmes aimed at preventing early school leavingBut how should these programmes be organized, and what should they include in order to be effective? To answer this question, a systematic review of all randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies that have examined the effect of school dropout programmes was conducted. The studies were published between 1985 and 2010. The included programmes had an average duration of 91 weeks (almost 2 years).

Of 152 studies that met the inclusion criteria, 12 general dropout programmes were identified:

  1. School or class restructuring: Remedial education, tutoring, homework assistance, etc. (91 studies).
  2. Vocational training: Coursework, internships, or employment oriented toward work or career interests (49 studies).
  3. Supplemental academic services: Remedial education, tutoring, homework assistance, etc. (28 studies).
  4. Community services: Programmes involved planning and carrying out a community service project (commonly coupled with a weekly life skills community) (24 studies).
  5. Mentors, counselling: Programmes provided adult mentors or trained counsellors for students. Though mentors focused more on career/work, both mentors and counsellors dealt with student’s personal issues (23 studies).
  6. Alternative schools: Schools designed to provide educational and other (e.g., behavioral) services to students whose needs aren’t adequately addressed in traditional schools. Typically for students pushed out of regular schools (22 studies).
  7. Attendance monitoring & contingencies: Monitoring and services to increase attendance; some offer financial incentives (20 studies).
  8. College-oriented programming: College preparatory curriculum, college-oriented academic advising (18 studies).
  9. Multi-service packages: Large, comprehensive programs; often included academic, vocational, & case management (12 studies).
  10. Skills training, including CBT: Generally oriented toward improving self-esteem or attitudes about school, or preventing drug use (12 studies).
  11. Case management: Programmes revolved around connecting students and families with appropriate services (10 studies).
  12. Other programmes: Recreational, residential services for homeless, etc (8 studies).

The findings from the review
showed that the average percentage of students who left school early across all the comparison groups, was 21%. The mean dropout rate for the students who participated in the dropout programs was 13%. In other words: whereas 21% of students in regular education programs left school early, only 13% of students in the dropout programmes dropped out of school. Surprisingly, none of the programmes stood out as more effective in reducing the dropout rates compared to the other programmes. Nonetheless, some differences in effectiveness were found, but these differences were mainly due to the way the program had been implemented.

What we can learn from the review: Given the small variation in effects across the programmes, the main conclusion from this review is that dropout prevention and intervention programmes, regardless of type, will likely be effective if they are implemented well and are appropriate for the local environment. In other words: Using preventive measures is important to reduce school dropout rates. However, how the programmes are implemented is essential for the success of the programme.

Our comments on the review: The study used a comprehensive and diverse research strategy, where all randomised controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies conducted between 1985 and 2010 were assessed. A wide range of electronic databases were searched, in addition to research registers, other grey literature databases and reference lists of all previous meta-analyses and reviews on the topic, as well as citations in research reports. The authors also maintained correspondence with researchers in the field of school dropout prevention. This study is therefore considered one of the largest and most comprehensive literature reviews within this topic, thus making this review an important contribution to the research field.

The authors have done a meta-analysis, where they included results from all the 152 studies. The analyses were controlled for gender, age, ethnicity and other factors that might influence the results. In addition, different analyses were used to assess the possibility of publication bias, thus the findings from the review can be considered unbiased and reliable. The studies are robust, and most of them use control groups who did not participate in a dropout programme. This increases the probability that the programmes in themselves account for the variations we see between the groups, and not other confounding factors.

So how big was the actual difference between the control group and the intervention groups? These types of programmes can be applied to a large number of students. Say there were 100.000 students in a region; 13.000 of the students who received a dropout programme left school early, whereas 21.000 of the students did so in the control group. This equals a difference of 8.000 students. Thus, scaling these programmes to a larger number of schools can highly influence the number of students who remain in school.

Nonetheless, the review has some limitations. Most of the programmes are time and resource consuming, with an average duration of 91 weeks. We therefore don’t have a basis for concluding that less intensive programmes, or programmes with a shorter duration will have similar effects as the programmes included in the review.

Most of the participants in the studies came from families with low socioeconomic status, and many of the students came from language minority groups. Furthermore, most of the students were already at risk of leaving school early. This might impact the generalizability of the review. Nevertheless, the risk factors mentioned in this study have been associated with increased risk of early school leaving, making the conclusions found in this review important for prevention of early school leaving.


This is a summary of the article:

Sandra Jo Wilson, Emily E. Tanner-Smith, Mark W. Lipsey, Katarzyna Steinka-Fry, & Jan Morrison (2011) Dropout Prevention and Intervention Programs: Effects on School Completion and Dropout among Schoolaged Children and Youth. Campbell Systematic Reviews 2011:8

Click here to read the article.

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