University of Georgia
In the struggle to keep students from dropping out of school, UGA researchers are finding that how a student views time and rewards play key roles in why some students quit on their educations.
“It is so well known that it is a cliché: To get a good job, you need a good education,” said Jeff Jordan, a University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences professor. “Yet, more than one-third of children do not graduate from high school.”
For the 2007-2008 school year, Georgia’s dropout rate was 22 percent, or 18,960 students. Of those, 8,711 were removed for lack of attendance, 6,078 dropped out because of other adult education, 1,406 were expelled, and 1,330 dropped out for unknown reasons, according to a chart provided by the Georgia Department of Education.
The rate is slightly lower than the previous year, but Georgia still ranks in the bottom five for dropouts nationally.
It’s about time
Jordan has studied Spalding County eighth-graders since 2005, along with researchers from Georgia State University and Georgia Tech. He’s collected data on 1,300 students. He’s trying to figure out their time preferences, something he calls student discount rates.
Time – specifically how a student views the future – is one of the key reasons some students drop out.
Jordan and his colleagues chose to study eighth-graders because “most kids finish elementary school still engaged,” he said. “It’s that time in middle school that those who drop out become disengaged.”
“What research is showing is that we lose kids earlier than we thought we did. They are often present physically, but not present emotionally – they are not engaged,” said Sharon Gibson, a UGA Cooperative Extension multicultural specialist.
In Georgia, students can drop out when they’re 16. The average eighth-grader is between 13 and 15 years old.
Jordan, an agricultural economist, uses money to study how long students are willing to wait. In 2008, the group surveyed eighth-graders at all four Spalding County middle schools to see whether they would rather have the money now or if they would be willing to wait for a few months for more.
In each of the classes they studied, they gave three students gift cards in the amount they chose – $49 for students who indicated they wanted the money now and up to $98 if they were willing to wait longer for more.
The research shows that black boys have significantly larger discount rates than any other demographic group, a finding that may indicate these students have a different view of the future, he said. “They tend to view positive outcomes as less likely and negative as more likely.”
According to Gibson, “if all you’ve seen is negative, negative, negative, and all you hear is negative, negative, negative, then the expectation is that of ‘when is the other shoe going to fall?’”
Kids who live in high-stress environments often find it difficult to believe something good could happen to them, even when it’s happening, she said.
Jordan also found that discount rates predict the likelihood that a student will have above-average disciplinary referrals. And his research has found something else – reward-based reinforcement isn’t necessarily the best way to get kids engaged in school.
“All the research that has been done on these kinds of incentive systems shows that they make things worse,” he said. “‘Good’ kids get the rewards, and the kids who aren’t getting good grades and are falling behind aren’t (getting rewards). The way our system is set up, it makes the gap between high- and low-achieving kids widen.”
In part because of his research, the four middle schools now have a new incentive-based system in place. These incentives have shorter time periods between rewards and more sequential rewards.
This past summer, Jordan started looking at fourth-graders and kindergarteners. He’s trying to pinpoint when students lose interest in school. That age could vary depending on the child.
Gibson is closely following Jordan’s research and hoping that her outreach efforts will benefit from his findings. Through a USDA Children, Youth, and Families at Risk Sustainable Community Projects grant, she focuses on rural communities to engage and empower youth to “be the change they want to see in the world,” she said.
The project she’s currently working on, called UGA Cooperative Extension Teens As Planners, offers teens opportunities to increase their employability. This is done by helping them improve their workplace, life and technological skills as well as giving them opportunities for civic engagement and service-learning.
“We all need to know we are valued and that we have something positive to contribute,” Gibson said. “Youths are no exception. They need to know that their voices are heard and that their community expects them to contribute and appreciates their contribution.”
(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)