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Disengagement: Achievement Gaps, Discipline, and Dropout - Treating the Disease, Not Just the Symptoms

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Disengagement: Achievement Gaps, Discipline, and Dropout – Treating the Disease, Not Just the Symptoms. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2010. www.KaganOnline.com

"Two women are standing on the bank of a swift river. Suddenly, they see a man in the river. He desperately struggles to stay afloat, as the rapid current is carrying him downstream toward them. The women both jump in, pulling the man to safety. While the brave rescuers are tending the victim, a second man, also desperate and screaming for help, is carried by the current toward them. Again the women jump into the river to the rescue. As they are pulling out this second victim, they spot a third man flailing about as he is carried downstream toward them. One woman quickly jumps in to save the latest victim. As she does, she turns to see the other woman resolutely walking upstream. "Why aren't you helping?" she cries. "I am," states the other. "I am going upstream to see who is pushing them in!"1

In the minds of many educators, discipline problems, poor achievement, achievement gaps, and school dropout are each separate, serious problems in need of distinct sets of remedies. Many approaches have been suggested and implemented, some of which have had some success. What if, however, each of these problems is not separate, not in need of different remedies? What if they are all to some extent symptoms of the same disease? Treatment of symptoms is not as efficient as treatment of diseases. Before Jonas Salk made his discovery, every summer tens of thousands of people were crippled for life by polio. Doctors treated the symptoms of polio, offering what comfort and relief they could. Then Salk took a different approach. He focused on the disease, not the symptoms. He walked upstream. And today the world is nearly free of polio! Is it possible that we could walk upstream and treat a common cause of discipline problems, school achievement gaps, and dropout?

When faced with disruptive students, students failing to achieve well, and students at risk of drop out, we have focused on those students. We ask, what is wrong with the student? How can we help that student? It is possible we would be far more effective if we change our focus. Instead of asking why the students are drowning, we should ask what is pushing them in. Would we be more efficient if we focus on prevention, not treatment; cause, not consequences? In this paper, I will argue that we can make substantial progress in treating the pressing problems of discipline problems, achievement gaps, and dropout by changing traditional instructional practices that create student disengagement. Lack of instructional strategies that create engagement for all students is a common cause of all three problems. First, though, let's very briefly overview the three problems: discipline problems, achievement gaps, and dropout.

Discipline Problems

Ask any teacher who has been in the profession for over twenty-five years, How are today's students different from those you taught when you began your career? The most likely responses include, they are more disruptive, less respectful, less disciplined. Teachers a quarter of a century ago could give a homework assignment and expect all students to comply; today many do not. Frequency and severity of disruptive behaviors demanding disciplinary action has increased dramatically. Of all professional development opportunities, the workshop most requested is how to deal with disruptive students. Most discipline programs tell teachers how to deal with the disruptive student. Few put their focus on eliminating the reasons why students are disruptive. We can punish or in some other way treat the disruptive student, but what if disruptive behavior is just a symptom? What if by creating more engagement in classrooms, most disruptive behavior would disappear?

Achievement Gaps

Substantial achievement gaps have been documented for racial and ethnic minorities, language minority students, students with disabilities, females, students from low-income families, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.2 Substantial international differences in achievement gaps have been documented.3 Achievement gaps among groups within countries as well as gaps among countries have been attributed to student characteristics, family backgrounds, home inputs, resources, teacher quality, and institutional differences.4 As we will see, however, achievement gaps are radically reduced when teachers adopt instructional strategies that engage all students. Rather than examining characteristics of students, we are more efficient in reducing achievement gaps by examining and changing the characteristics of our instructional strategies.


The negative economic and social impact of student dropout is well documented.5 As referenced by Dynarski and associates,

Each year more than half a million young people drop out of high school, and the rate at which they drop out has remained about the same for the last 30 years, even as spending on education has increased significantly.6, 7 For society as a whole, helping young people stay in and complete high school is a worthwhile objective. Dropouts typically earn less than graduates: the average earnings difference is estimated to be $9,000 a year and $260,000 over the course of a lifetime.8 The economic consequences of dropping out may continue to worsen as jobs for low-skilled workers dry up.9 Dropouts contribute only about half as much in taxes as do high school graduates.10 They draw larger government subsidies in the form of food stamps, housing assistance, and welfare payments.11 They have a dramatically increased chance of landing in prison, and they have worse health outcomes and lower life expectancies.12,13

Recent energy has been directed toward detecting those factors that predict dropout.14 Aren't we, however, trying to lock the barn after the horses have run away?15 Isn't this treatment rather than prevention? Elaborate models of dropout prevention have been proposed that include early detection, special treatment for at-risk students, school-wide interventions, as well as parent and community involvement. See the recommendations by the National Center for Educational Evaluation Recommendations,15 and the recommendations of the National Education Association.16 The focus in these recommendations, however, is primarily on treating the at-risk student. Would we be more effective focusing instead on the structure of classrooms and what causes students to disengage from the system? Empirical as well as theoretical studies indicate lack of student engagement is a primary cause of dropout.17