Dropout Prevention Theater… or at Least Concerts

 

   Apparently John Legend is going to be singing for Proctor & Gamble's "anti-dropout promotion" campaign. This PR effort is deja vu all over again, from this historian's perspective. There have been anti-dropout PR campaigns since World War I, sometimes government sponsored (as in WW1), sometimes public-private combinations (as in a summer 1963 campaign partly funded by a White House fund and partly pushed by the Ford Foundation), sometimes entirely private (as in the 1991 NBA Stay in School videos). The P&G effort is an example of the private campaign. 

There is something both charming and extraordinarily disturbing about the repeated efforts over decades to use surface-level marketing to change deep behavior such as school attendance.

There are examples of successful social-marketing campaigns that change the lives of children, such as the 1990s Back to Sleep campaign, which helped reduce SIDS deaths in the U.S., or the Florida Truth campaign, designed by and for teenagers to make non-smoking hip and smoking disgusting. But the PR efforts to get students to stay in high school through graduation is a much harder mountain to climb, since school attendance is a complicated issue for older students who have experienced repeated failure in academic classes. If Michael Jordan couldn't budge the behavior of adoring fans at the peak of his career, why would John Legend be any more successful? 

The sad truth is that PR campaigns like P&G's are wasted money for the most part, evanescent and failing to build the infrastructure necessary to improve graduation with regular academic diplomas. The even sadder truth is that "dropout" is a politically weak argument for programmatic structures, since there is no politically active constituency of dropouts or potential dropouts ready to march to defend meaningful programs. The long history of dropout prevention is one of programs that are either marginal in effect or marginal in relationship to school systems. There are loads of defunct programs buried all over the country that someone originally funded as dropout prevention, but because those often have started through grants or other transitory funding mechanisms, they have usually died within a few years. 

The broader picture is both optimistic in the long run and very frustrating for the last 40 years. The long-term story in the 20th century is that it is possible to change the educational experiences of an entire population. In the first two thirds of the 20th century, attendance in and graduation from high schools shifted from a minority to a majority experience, and people in the U.S. starting seeing dropping out as a significant social problem only when the majority of teenagers were already graduating from high schools. As teenagers found full-time work much harder to acquire (for reasons ranging from immigration to mechanization and the minimum wage), they attended high school instead. But something about that reciprocal relationship changed towards the end of the 20th century. Since roughly 1970, graduation rates have been fairly stable (or stagnant, depending on your choice of words), with fairly persuasive evidence that alternative diplomas (primarily GEDs) have substituted for regular academic diplomas for some proportion of teenagers. 

There may be some useful and relatively simple mechanisms to increase high school graduation, but at least for forty or fifty years, no one has found a silver bullet. Among the more frequent attempts to budge the dynamics is the PR campaign. Thus far at least, I have seen no evidence of success for any previous attempt, and I am doubtful that Proctor & Gamble will do any better. 

There are examples of successful social-marketing campaigns that change the lives of children, such as the 1990s Back to Sleep campaign, which helped reduce SIDS deaths in the U.S., or the Florida Truth campaign, designed by and for teenagers to make non-smoking hip and smoking disgusting. But the PR efforts to get students to stay in high school through graduation is a much harder mountain to climb, since school attendance is a complicated issue for older students who have experienced repeated failure in academic classes. If Michael Jordan couldn't budge the behavior of adoring fans at the peak of his career, why would John Legend be any more successful? 

The sad truth is that PR campaigns like P&G's are wasted money for the most part, evanescent and failing to build the infrastructure necessary to improve graduation with regular academic diplomas. The even sadder truth is that "dropout" is a politically weak argument for programmatic structures, since there is no politically active constituency of dropouts or potential dropouts ready to march to defend meaningful programs. The long history of dropout prevention is one of programs that are either marginal in effect or marginal in relationship to school systems. There are loads of defunct programs buried all over the country that someone originally funded as dropout prevention, but because those often have started through grants or other transitory funding mechanisms, they have usually died within a few years. 

The broader picture is both optimistic in the long run and very frustrating for the last 40 years. The long-term story in the 20th century is that it is possible to change the educational experiences of an entire population. In the first two thirds of the 20th century, attendance in and graduation from high schools shifted from a minority to a majority experience, and people in the U.S. starting seeing dropping out as a significant social problem only when the majority of teenagers were already graduating from high schools. As teenagers found full-time work much harder to acquire (for reasons ranging from immigration to mechanization and the minimum wage), they attended high school instead. But something about that reciprocal relationship changed towards the end of the 20th century. Since roughly 1970, graduation rates have been fairly stable (or stagnant, depending on your choice of words), with fairly persuasive evidence that alternative diplomas (primarily GEDs) have substituted for regular academic diplomas for some proportion of teenagers. 

There may be some useful and relatively simple mechanisms to increase high school graduation, but at least for forty or fifty years, no one has found a silver bullet. Among the more frequent attempts to budge the dynamics is the PR campaign. Thus far at least, I have seen no evidence of success for any previous attempt, and I am doubtful that Proctor & Gamble will do any better. 

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor of the Education Policy Analysis Archives. His research interests include how schools educate children they have treated poorly in the past and how we define...