Volume 2, Issue B ::: June 1998
Retention and the GED
by Jamie D. Barron Jones
Having spent 12 years as a Director of Social Work Programs by day and a GED instructor by night, I have long been aware that my students face serious barriers in reaching their goals. Just entering a school building is stressful for some. More than once I have walked through the parking lot to invite potential students, anxious about returning to school, inside. I have manipulated every facet of the learning environment and curriculum that I could to make classes user friendly. Students complained that they could not sit comfortably at desks designed for high school students, so I changed the location of the classes to conference rooms equipped with large tables and comfortable chairs. I developed a thorough orientation and goal-planning program to introduce students to classes, answer any questions, and allay their concerns as to what was expected of them. I also individualized my curriculum as much as possible to target student needs. The students seemed genuinely pleased with the classes and their progress, yet absenteeism and retention problems persisted. In 1996, by the Christmas break, I was experiencing drop-out rates as high as 60 percent.
Consequently, during the break, I consulted 20 students. I discovered an array of problems and concerns that affected their classroom attendance, nearly all of which had nothing to do with academic ability. If students with such problems were to stay in class, I thought, the problems would have to be identified early on, before the students became overwhelmed and quit the program. I felt I had to find a way to elicit and address the concerns that could prevent my students from succeeding in class.
At a teachers' meeting one afternoon, my supervisor suggested I join an action research group to explore strategies to address this issue. Action research is conducted within the confines of the classroom, by the teacher. I would choose the question to be researched and the data collection measures, and the results would be applicable to my concerns. I joined the group. For my action research project I decided that, when new students came to class, I would interview them. I would attempt to discover why they had dropped out of high school, how dropping out had affected them, and what goals they had for the future. A few weeks later I would have them elaborate upon this in essays. I would use this information to refer students to appropriate social services. I also hoped that by demonstrating that I was interested in their lives, I would build stronger bonds with my students. My formal research question became "Will retention be improved by using interviews and creative writing assignments to identify barriers to attendance and providing referrals to services to address these barriers?" To document the research, I would take notes on interviews with students, collect writing assignments, maintain attendance records, and keep a journal, field notes, and anecdotal records.
The GED class I targeted to study was located in a rural community in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. A total of 27 students were involved, including a comparison group of ten who attended class from September to December and did not participate in the retention intervention, and 17 new students who did. The students ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens, 20 were female, seven male, all were white. They worked independently or in groups studying a full range of GED subjects. Classes met two evenings a week for three hours a night. My program does not have an intake center. All orientation and testing are done in the classroom by the teacher. Those who are interested in joining a class simply walk in during any scheduled class session and begin. I frequently receive a phone call from the program administrator before a new student arrives, but often learners read recruitment posters or learn about the classes via word of mouth, and arrive unannounced.
Prior to conducting this research, I typically chatted with new students about their motivations for attending classes and their future goals. Although I encouraged a free exchange, because it was our first meeting I could not elicit much information. My first intervention in the action research project involved reformulating this talk into an in-depth fact-finding session. Taking new students one-by-one into a separate classroom, I began with general questions about why they had dropped out and were now enrolling. I asked about the positive aspects of their lives, such as families, work, hobbies, and interests, taking notes throughout. I spent a considerable amount of time on goals and in reviewing the challenges and support systems they could expect to encounter. The interviews varied in length from ten to 20 minutes. The technique proved somewhat helpful, but, since we were just beginning our teacher-student relationship, the students were still not all that forthcoming.
After students had attended four classes and we had established a rapport, I invited them to complete a writing assignment about themselves. I explained that I was very interested in their success and wanted to be aware of their concerns. I asked them to respond in writing to the following questions. "People drop out of high school for many reasons. Why did you decide to drop out of high school? How has dropping out of high school affected your life and the lives of your family and those closest to you? What are your goals? Where do you see yourself a year from now? Why did you decide to pursue a GED at this time?"
I was hopeful that the students would consider their responses carefully and provide truthful, comprehensive answers. But I was unprepared for the painfully honest replies. Here are a few excerpts:
"Dropping out of school was the biggest mistake of my life...and has affected my life tremendously. It lowered my self-esteem a lot. I was embarrassed to tell people I quit. I felt like a failure My sister quit school a few months after I did. I don't know if it was because of me and my mom's poor example, but she will find out how hard it will be to make a living without an education I returned to school to feel better about myself and try to set an example for my younger sister."
"The consequences facing me after I dropped out were more than I bargained for. I came to find that you are not going to get hired for a job much above minimum wage. This problem was magnified when I found myself with two children barely a year apart in age. My situation landed me at the welfare office, someplace I had never pictured myself going. It is quite amazing where the choices you make and the path you choose take you...The GED classes are doing wonders for me. I feel a sense of accomplishing something more than just collecting a welfare check every two weeks. It is a wonderful feeling to have...We do things in our lives at times that seem right at the moment, failing to assess the consequences they may lead to in the future. Dropping out of high school is a choice, and does affect different people in many different ways. I myself have felt the burden of my choice, and I am sure many others have also."
"The reason I dropped out of school was because I was in many different foster homes and just the thought of meeting new people scared me. I was always moving from place to place. I would have friends, then I would suddenly be moved to another home...I was moved around so much that I never really had the chance to learn...Then one day I ran away, and I was nowhere to be found, so they signed me out of school, and I never went back. The main thing is that I'm here now, and I really want to learn. I decided to want something and that's my GED. My goal is to be able to look at the people that made me not want to learn and say to them I did this on my own. I got my GED. And I'm very proud of myself."
These essays provided me with great insight into the lives of my students. In addition to reading them, I devoted class time to discussing the essays individually with each student. I became aware of their concerns and, in some cases, phobias about academics, and I gained a better understanding of the circumstances that had influenced their decisions to drop out and then to attend GED classes. Based upon what I learned from these essays and from conversations in class, I referred students to a variety of agencies, including the county assistance office, a local day care center, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Job Center, medical and vision services, Victim Services, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and job training. Sometimes I provided the application forms, assisted in their completion, and ensured that they were delivered. In other cases, I made phone calls on the behalf of the students. My experience as a social worker stood me in good stead, but all the information about services is accessible to the public. The support services assisted the students in diminishing or removing barriers to success in the program.
Unlike the control group, the students in the intervention group arrived early and often stayed late to review materials. They formed their own out-of-class study groups. I spent my budget to the penny in an effort to keep them supplied with the materials, texts, workbooks, and study guides that they requested. These efforts seemed to translate into academic gain. Of the comparison group of ten students, only four successfully completed the program, for a retention rate of 40 percent. We consider program completion to be the receipt of a GED or a one or more grade level increase in Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) test scores. The intervention group of 17 students maintained an 82 percent retention rate. All 14 of the remaining learners who had participated in the intervention raised their reading and math levels by an average of two grade levels, compared to the comparison group who raised their on average only one grade level. Nine of the 14 students completed applications for postsecondary training and one participated in a youth work experience program. None of the students in the comparison group enrolled in such programs.
I embarked upon an action research project because I was concerned with retention. The intervention I chose learning more about students through interview and essay writing, working to develop a rapport, and providing referrals to social services resulted in both increased retention and impressive academic gains. The interviews and essays served as an impetus for bonding. I continually attempted to strengthen my relationship with the students by inquiring about personal interests and providing efforts for them to experience success in the classroom. Even if students were unable to complete an assignment correctly, I encouraged them by recognizing the diligent efforts they made. We grew as a community of learners. The study not only proved successful for the students, but also renewed my zeal for teaching. My students' excitement became contagious.
I will continue to utilize the interviews and essays, and to provide referrals with future groups and hope to enjoy similar success. In my view, although helping students deal with intense issues can be emotionally taxing, I would encourage other teachers to attempt such strategies. Students cannot thrive academically when they are overwhelmed with outside concerns.
About the Author
Jamie D. Barron Jones is the Director of Employment, Education, and Training Social Work Programs in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and a GED teacher at Somerset County Area Vocational Technical School.