Creating the dropout: An institutional and social history of school failure

Sherman Jay Dorn, University of Pennsylvania


In the early 1960's, a stereotype of the high school dropout gelled in the United States. The public outcry expressed contemporary concerns about workplace automation, juvenile delinquency, and urban poverty. Dropout programs of the 1960's reflected those concerns, but they also faced obstacles created by entrenched public school bureaucracies. The history of dropout projects in New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta shows that programs were too small and narrow to eliminate the dropout problem and that public school systems were too insulated to probe the prevailing conventional wisdom about the dropout. The rigidity of the dropout stereotype came in part from the isolation of public schools from local critics and schools' intransigent defense of segregation. The popular image of a homogeneous dropout population obscured the complexity of issues and implied that the dropouts bore primary blame for their problems. The question of a right to education and racial differences in school outcomes remained at the margins of the dropout debate, despite their potential relevance. Since 1940, the probability of graduating from high school in the United States has slowly risen, and graduation has become a normative expectation. While no numerical dropout crisis ever existed in the 1960's (in terms of a rising probability of dropping out), the perception of a discrete crisis defined the dropout problem. The use of a diploma as a credential helped make graduation a norm. The fundamental irony in the history of high school graduation is that the group experiencing the greatest relative achievement over the last forty years, African Americans, remains among the poorest populations in the country. The history of the dropout problem shows an acute dilemma of schools: keeping all students in existing schools obscures the real problems, but "dropping out" is even worse. Real improvement requires restructuring schools and its relationship to the labor market, but this is precisely what has proved so difficult. The very success of high schools in attracting enrollment helped define the dropout problem, but that process seems unable to eliminate the problem.

Subject Area

Education history|American history|Educational sociology

Recommended Citation

Dorn, Sherman Jay, "Creating the dropout: An institutional and social history of school failure" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9227651.