Uncovering the Hidden Dropouts

In the early 2000s, a great deal of attention was given to the education system’s success in reducing school dropout rates.  At this time, a special Knesset committee commissioned research from MJB on this issue.

In response, the Institute argued that it was important to expand the focus of the committee to include the previously undocumented phenomenon of “hidden dropouts,” students who are disengaged from school but do not show up in official dropout statistics because they are still officially enrolled.

Disengaged students pose a significant challenge to the education system because of their frequent absences, behavioral problems in school, and emotional disengagement from the learning process due to feelings of alienation from school and a perception that school doesn’t really matter.

With the committee’s backing, the Institute undertook the first national study of the extent of this phenomenon.  MJB’s findings sparked considerable discussion about the degree to which schools need to take greater responsibility for school adjustment problems and low achievements of these disengaged students.  The committee issued a set of comprehensive recommendations aimed at transforming the school climate, including expanding academic assistance for those with low achievements, school-based therapeutic responses, and redefining of the homeroom teacher’s role as the “key person” for all students to turn to.

Over the next decade, the Ministry of Education, together with JDC-Ashalim and the Institute, worked to develop, implement, and evaluate new programs that responded to the recommendations.  Over this period, the term “hidden dropout” became firmly entrenched in the professional discourse, and more recently was integrated into the broader concept of the goal of “meaningful learning,” which was set as a high priority in Ministry policy.

To assist the Ministry in its efforts, in 2006, MJB conducted a national survey of the ways in which schools provide support for elementary and junior high students with school adjustment problems and low achievements and to learn about the difficulties that schools faced in meeting the needs of these disengaged students.  For the first time, the Ministry had a national picture of what was being done, providing a very important basis and impetus for strategizing and enhancing its efforts.

In 2012, the Institute revisited the issue with a second study to assess the changes that had taken place. The research indicated many positive changes, including greater use of practices to help low-achieving students to advance (such as paying attention to the socio-emotional needs of students and working with parents); reducing gaps between Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking schools; and an increased feeling among teachers that they have the tools and resources available to them help them to cope with the disengaged students.

Over time, MJB’s body of educational research has taken on an international dimension.  For example, the Institute has long been part of the World Health Organization’s international Health Behaviors in School Children study, which provides comparative perspectives on some of the key dimensions to the hidden dropout problem, such as school climate and risk behaviors.

Recently, a new opportunity has arisen to examine in greater detail and internationally compare the data on hidden dropouts.  In 2012, the OECD included for the first time measures of the hidden dropout phenomenon in its major on-going international survey of students in education systems, in which Israel participates.

Analysis of the OECD data showed that in 2012, 26% of Israeli 15-year-olds report being disengaged in one dimension.  Another 16% report being disengaged in two or three dimensions.  It is this latter group with multiple expressions of disengagement who remain the biggest challenge for the education system.

Israel’s overall rate of student disengagement is close to the international average.  However, when we compare the different components of the phenomenon, we find that Israel has lower rates of emotional disengagement (feelings of alienation), but higher rates of behavioral disengagement (marked, for example, by frequent absences).

The findings were presented in July at a national seminar on hidden dropouts, held at the Institute in collaboration with the Children and Youth At-Risk Division of the Ministry of Education.  The seminar served as a platform for Ministry professionals and other leading educators to discuss how the education and social service systems can better meet the needs of the significant number of children and youth who remain disengaged.

MJB will continue to work with the Ministry of Education to develop its future strategy and to evaluate the efforts to better address this challenge.