Early school leaving is the result of a long and complex process. The dropout phenomenon can be approached in several ways. Empirical studies can be quantitative or qualitative in nature, and the sources of information can be the students themselves, the school, and governmental organizations. Sometimes very specific groups and sometimes all high school students are studied. Either the impact of separate factors can be studied, or many factors studied simultaneously in a model form. Studies cover a different time period: sometimes they are longitudinal, sometimes a single moment in time. This article starts by discussing theories and studies that apply several of these perspectives. We consider criticisms of authors like Smyth and Hattam (2001) that researchers have tended to neglect the voice of young school leavers because they are not open to critical notions about school. Our approach is to listen to school administrators, teachers, and the early school leavers themselves. The views of all relevant actors are represented and placed in perspective within their sociodemographic and socioeconomic settings.
Theories and Empirical Studies of Early School Leaving
The processes that affect dropout are cumulative, which makes them difficult to pin down. It is fair to say that there is consensus about the impact of family characteristics such as the educational level of parents and family structure; sociological theories about the impact of parental resources can explain these effects (Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Coleman, 1988; Lee & Burkam, 2003; Beekhoven, 2004). However, since there is more involved than certain family characteristics in increasing the risk of early school leaving, several authors have taken note of what happens during a school career.
Rumberger (1987) presents a review on research into dropout and argues in favor of constructing causal models that can identify the full range of (cumulative) influences and their interdependency. Rumberger stresses the need to study the causality of effects: does a girl leave school because she is pregnant, or does she get pregnant because things are bad at school? Finn (1989) comes up with two models in theorizing about the process that leads to dropout. First is the participation-identification model, which states that dropping out of school can be seen as an outcome of the process of participation and identification. Lack of participation leads to unsuccessful school outcomes, which then lead to nonidentification and finally to the ultimate in nonparticipation--physical withdrawal. The second model is the classic frustration-self-esteem model; low achievement destroys self-confidence and leads to problematic behavior. In both models Finn particularly points to the processes within school.
Several authors have attempted to categorize relevant factors; for instance, into push and pull factors (Jordan et al., 1994). Push factors, such as problems at school, either with learning, behavior or motivation, push students out of the school system. Factors that encourage students to stop learning and start working, such as an appealing job offer, are considered pull factors.
Large quantitative studies provided insight into several factors--and their interrelations--which increase the risk that students will leave school. The relevant factors are found at pupil, family, peer group, and school levels. In particular the effects of socioeconomic background, type of family, ability, prior school career, and truancy have been shown to influence decisions to leave school (Dekkers & Driessen, 1997; Lee & Burkam, 2003; Luyten et al., 2003). Many studies note that older students are at higher risk of dropping out. However, the effect of age is usually a consequence of repeating classes or other prior school career factors.
Although there have been several large and some smaller quantitative studies, increasing attention is being paid to qualitative research. This may help to gain more insight into the complex interdependent factors that cause early school leaving as experienced and noted by the leavers themselves. Tidwell (1988) interviewed numerous dropouts, and although most of them spoke positively about learning or about the usefulness of obtaining a high school diploma, they also perceived school as "dull" and "a waste of time." Only a small minority of those interviewed had problems with their teachers or school administrators. Studies in the Netherlands have found that very early school leavers experienced several difficulties at school, including lack of motivation and problems with teachers (Dekkers & Driesen, 1997). Increasingly, researchers focus not only on the causes of dropout but on the dropouts' perception of their situation (De Wit & Dekkers, 1996; Dekkers & Claassen, 2001). These studies show that young people who cut their educational career short are not necessarily living problematic lives. Dekkers and Claassen (2001) interviewed early school leavers some time after they had left school and constructed a typology based on their experiences at school and their present situation. They categorized six types of early school leavers: the successful unschooled manual worker, the career planner, the money earner, the doubter, the unemployed dropout, and the employed (temporary) dropout. Dekkers and Claassen (2001) conclude that most early school leavers found jobs, even in a poor economic situation. Early school leavers profit in particular from informal networks; for instance, when they find a job with someone within their extended family. Although in Tidwell's (1988) study no picture of problematic behaving youth emerges; half of the early school leavers were still looking for a job at the time of the interview.
The Role of Schools
The subject of early school leaving can be a very sensitive one. Several researchers argue that it is time to stop focusing on causes in relation to individual students and their backgrounds, and start pointing the finger at the school itself. Stop blaming the victim seems to be the message (Lee & Burkam, 2003). Smyth and Hattam (2001) focus on methodological issues when they argue that researchers have largely neglected the voice of young people who left school and that interviewers merely extract data from them. In other words, researchers do not really listen to young people and are not open to critical views of school. Smyth and Hattam seem to be arguing that there is a conspiracy to …