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The K-12 School Experiences of High School Dropouts

The K-12 School Experiences of High School Dropouts

New data indicate that "school resisters" may be a minority. What does that mean for ABE programs?

by Stephen Reder & Clare Strawn
Initial findings from NCSALL's Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) are challenging the prevailing notion that individuals in the target population for adult education tend to have had negative experiences  in K-12 schools, and that these experiences limit their participation in adult education. The LSAL data provide little support for this view, long held by many researchers and practitioners in adult education (Beder, 1991; Quigley, 1990). Based on the idea that prior negative school experiences, difficulties in learning school curricula, and the stigma of dropping out combine to produce "school resisters" who are reluctant to go back to school or participate in programs, many adult educators have attempted to make their programs less school-like. Although a small percentage of the target population studied by LSAL does resemble the typical "school resister," many others do not fit that profile, and, in fact, feel positive about their prior school experiences. Furthermore, among LSAL's target population, individuals who do participate in adult education programs have very similar K-12 experiences to those who do not participate.

Prior School Experiences

By definition, LSAL's study population (see page 12 for details on the study design) is entirely high school dropouts who had not received a certificate of General Educational Development (GED) or equivalent by the time of the first interview. They reported dropping out of high school for diverse reasons. Although it was commonly assumed that pregnancy was one of the leading reasons women dropped out of high school a generation ago, this is no longer the case among LSAL respondents. Fewer than one in 10 (nine percent) reported pregnancy or health-related concerns as the main reason for dropping out. The two most commonly reported reasons for leaving school were boredom or feeling that one didn't belong in school (29%) and school performance problems (26%). A variety of other reasons relating to family, relationships, and employment were also commonly reported (see Table 1).

When individuals were asked to evaluate their overall K-12 school experiences, they reported a wide range of experiences. Their overall evaluations, on a five-point scale ranging from "very negative" to "very positive," are shown in Table 2.

Table 2 makes several points. First, it is not true, as many might believe, that most individuals who drop out of high school have had negative school experiences. A larger percentage (40%) report positive (either "somewhat positive" or "very positive") experiences than report negative ones (28%). Although an identifiable group (11%) of individuals in our study population had "very negative" school experiences, a nearly equal number (10%) had "very positive" experiences. As might be expected, individuals who repeated grades, or who left school because of problems with academic performance, tend to evaluate their overall school experiences more negatively.

Program Participants and Nonparticipants: Similarities and Differences

LSAL is particularly interested in contrasting the life experiences of individuals in the study population who do and do not participate in adult education programs. An important and somewhat surprising finding from the first year of data is that within the LSAL population, individuals who have participated in adult education are highly similar to their counterparts who have not participated, in their demographics, previous K-12 school experiences, literacy proficiencies, and other salient variables. Table 3 displays characteristics that do not differ between participants and nonparticipants. 

Table 1: Reasons for leaving school

Table 2: Evaluation of K-12 school experience

Although some statistically significant differences can be found between the two subpopulations, these are usually small in magnitude. For example, the two groups differ slightly in average age. Those who have participated in programs are somewhat younger (average age, 27 years) than those who have never participated (average age, 29 years). The participant group shows a slightly higher percentage (12 %) of immigrants than does the nonparticipant (eight percent) group. A somewhat higher percentage (41%) of adult education participants repeated a grade during K-12 than those who never participated in adult education (33%).

Table 3: Selected characteristics of the LSAL population, participants and non-


Discussion and Implications 

The baseline LSAL data provide little support for the view of the adult education student as a school resister. Although a small percentage of individuals in the target population had very negative K-12 experiences, far more had positive school experiences even though they dropped out before graduating. Furthermore, there is little indication that previous K-12 experiences are a major force in determining who among the target population participates in adult education programs. For example, if we believe that individuals who evaluate their K-12 experiences negatively are less likely to participate in adult education, we should expect a correspondingly different pattern of responses to the K-12 evaluation question among those who do and do not participate in adult education programs. In fact, there is no overall statistically significant difference between the K-12 evaluations of those who have participated and those who have never participated in adult education classes. Although some individuals fit the conception of the "school resistor," they are relatively few. Efforts to reform programs to increase outreach and retention should not assume that negative school experiences are a common barrier. Such models of the adult learner have based their argument on a few compelling case studies of learners, rather than on a broader look at the target population comparing those who do and do not choose to participate in programs.

Many of the questions we hope LSAL will answer must await the analysis of subsequent years of data showing change over time in the study population. The baseline data can already contribute important new information  to the field of adult education, and will help to dispel prevalent myths. For example, the finding that, within the target population for adult education, those who choose to participate are quite similar in many respects to those who do not participate is important. That these two groups have generally similar K-12 experiences is especially important, because it counters the widespread perception that negative prior school experiences are a major impediment to improving outreach and retention in adult education programs. The two groups might not be as comparable in other locales, where characteristics of both local K-12 schools and adult education programs differ from those in our area (Portland, OR). A lack of comparability elsewhere should be established by research rather than being generally assumed and illustrated by example or anecdote, as has too often been done. The LSAL findings reported here may be broadly applicable. NCSALL's Persistence Study (see Focus on Basics 4A, pp. 1-7), which examined a range of adult learners and programs in the northeastern United States, found negative prior school experiences to be relatively unimportant in adult students' reasons for enrolling and persisting in programs.

As follow-up data from LSAL become available, we plan to look more closely at relationships among individuals' previous school experiences, the characteristics of their families of origin, and the ways in which they form life goals. Better understanding of these relationships will help us to understand the part adult education plays in their lives. Understanding the dynamics of these relationships will help us better understand why individuals enroll in adult education programs, the factors affecting their persistence and learning in the programs, and ways in which new program designs could better serve a broader base of potential students.


Beder, H. (1991). Adult Literacy: Issues for Policy and Practice. Malabar, FL: Krieger. 

Quigley, B.A. (1990). "Hidden logic: Reproduction and resistance in adultliteracy and basic education." Adult Education Quarterly, 40, 103-115. 

About the Authors

Stephen Reder is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University, Portland, OR. Reder is Principal Investigator for two of NCSALL's research projects, the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning and the National Labsite for Adult ESOL.

Clare Strawn is the Project Manager for the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning and a doctoral candidate in Urban Studies at Portland State University, Portland, OR. She holds a Masters Degree in Education and Community Development from the University of California, Davis. Her research interest is in the intersection of adult learning and community.