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Attendance: School Dropouts, Pushouts, and Optouts

A school dropout is defined as an individual who quits school prior to graduation. A school pushout is defined as a student that has been counseled or in some way forced out of school prior to graduation. I would like to suggest that we also consider the idea of the school optout, or an individual who quits school because it serves no meaningful or relevant purpose in their life...

Ontario's dropout rate soared to 32 per cent in 2003-2004.


Much of the information available about school dropouts come to us by way of statistics. For example, the California Department of Education has developed criteria to define who is and is not a school dropout. The criteria are defined in a manner that allows them to statistically track trends in the school dropout rate.

I would suggest that limiting the definition of a school dropout to statistical trends is unhelpful and somewhat inept. While the numbers reveal a statistical trend, and this is somewhat helpful, they do not account for the thoughts and feelings of those labeled as dropouts. In other words, there is little sense of what the reasons and circumstances are surrounding the numbers. The experiences of the people making up these statistics are absent, and their specific challenges in life are all too often passed by.

In addition, a large proportion of the response to school dropouts is aimed at finding ways of keeping them in school. In Ontario Tries To Curb Rising Dropout Rate we can see this debate taking place. The central idea in this article is whether or not legislating dropouts back to school or to stay in school would help. Of course, it won't. And does it not seem odd that we would have to legislate students to stay in school to a later age? To further compound this issue, the response to school dropouts rarely focuses on the problems inherent in the education system itself. Blame is externalized and the dropout becomes needlessly marginalized in society.

For example, the news release McGuinty Commits Government To Reach Excellence For Students reveals two trends:

  1. The number of children attending private schools has increased by 40 per cent over the last eight years.
  2. Fifty per cent of the students who begin Grade 9 either do not graduate from Grade 12 or stop their education after Grade 12 -- despite estimates that 60 per cent of new jobs will go to people who study beyond high school.
The action plan to remedy the situation is ineffective:
  • reduce class sizes;
  • hire an outside expert;
  • create a task force (in this case it's called The Literacy And Numeracy Secretariat);
  • provide special teacher training and institute lead coaches in school; and
  • measure improvement using standardized testing.

These actions are commonplace and ineffective. Moreover, there is an assumption in these actions that the school system merely needs to adjust, instead of questioning itself. It would be interesting to conduct an investigation into the history of government intervention in public education in order to reveal the cyclical patterns and practices used over time, the total cost of this involvement to the tax payer, and the nature of the specific improvements and results gained.

The issue of students dropping out of high school is not merely a commentary on supposedly troubled youth, it is an indicator of what a society does and does not value. In education it is clear that we value conformity. It is also clear that we do not value students that dropout of school since they are not conforming to societal expectations. Therefore the school dropout is, in a sense, punished by society and marginalized. It is this kind of social ignorance and irresponsibility, not the fact that students are dropping out of school, which is the most virulent problem. To assume that the school dropout is in some way inferior or unable to effectively participate in society is completely misguided.

Wikipedia defines a school dropout as someone who quits school before graduation. This is simple and to the point. But even more interesting is their inclusion of famous college and high school dropouts immediately below the definition. While the people listed are those that have achieved a significant kind of fame in society, I suspect that there are many other dropouts that have created engaging and invigorating lives for themselves.

One of the things we must consider as a community is that perhaps dropping out of school is precisely the right thing for certain people to do. It is reasonable to assume that an education system driven by the conformity of an imposed curriculum and standardized measures for all cannot meet the needs of everyone. That is not to say that the education system is a kind of enemy that we need to prepare ourselves against. It is to say, however, that until the education begins to question and challenge its own underlying assumptions and methods we will not see any significant change. With respect to dropouts this means that educators need to openly question whether or not the imposed methods inherent in the system itself are a possible cause of dropping out.


The definition of dropout in Wikipedia provides a link to the idea of a pushout. The definition of a pushout is:

A pushout is a student counseled or forced out of a school prior to graduation. Compare dropout. Children are often pushed out of an educational institutions because their presence in the school creates difficulty in meeting some goal of the school. For example, in the case where funding for the school is dependent upon scholastic achievement of the students, if the school can get rid of low-performing students, average test scores on academic performance test will go up, thus increasing funding. [1]. In Ontario, where the education system has zero tolerance towards violence, a student is pushed out province-wide. In some low-performing schools in Chicago combined dropout/pushout rates have exceeded 25% in one year. [2]

Children are also pushed from schools because they present discipline problems or have become "too old", even in cases where a child can legally remain in high school until they are 21, for example, they may be counseled out after they are over 18. [source: Wikipedia]

The reasons given for a student to be pushed out by the system itself are:

  1. The school cannot meet its own internal goals by virtue of a students presence (e.g. - achievement scores and therefore funding);
  2. The school must expel violent students that pose a threat to others;
  3. The school must expel students because their behaviour doesn't conform to a standard;
  4. The school counsels students out of education if they are too old.

The essential difference between a dropout and pushout seems to be that a pushout is in some manner encouraged to leave the education by the system itself, while a dropout makes the decision on his or her own. In a way, the school system seems to want dropouts to return to school while pushouts seem less welcome.

This brings to mind Erik Weihenmayer's judgment on his own education:

Enough is enough, I resolved. I would not be forced to play by other people's rules.

This is the summative statement of Erik's experiences in the school system. In a sense, Erik might be called a pushout since the education he was in during his youth seemed completely unable to adapt to his specific needs as a learner. An excellent account of this pushout experience can be found in Erik's book Touch The Top Of The World.

Like adding the names of famous people that have dropped out of college or high school, I would add Erik's name to famous people that have been pushed out of high school (n.b. - currently there are no names of famous people that have been pushed out of school in Wikipedia).


Optouts is a term, as far as I am aware, that I have coined to describe a student that drops out of school for good reason. Dropout has a negative connotation to it. Pushout has a punitive connotation to it. Optout can then provide a positive connotation. In other words, a school optout is someone that leaves the school system for good reason. It is not the individual student that carries a label, but the education system itself. The idea of an optout helps to position the discussion on more neutral territory and gives permission to explore potential problems within the education system itself openly.

Of course, the idea of an optout sounds anti-social since it embraces the possibility that not being in school can be exactly the right thing to do. The reason for this is, of course, that our society carries an almost silent assumption that our youth must attend school to approximately age 18. While there is nothing to show or prove that forcing youth to attend school from age five to eighteen is the best or even the right thing to do, society makes attendance a requirement. And the penalty for non-conformance can be severe even though we embrace language that purports to promote the needs of the individual learner, authentic learning and lifelong learning.

One of the key problems for the education system is that many student will see through these assumptions and know that, in fact, their needs are not being met nor are the experiences provided relevant to their lives. So they are left with a choice and that is to conform or to not conform.

Opting out of school places the optout in the full mystery of life itself. By shedding the cocoon of social norms and patterns, the optout, like the artist, stands apart from society. The idea of survival itself takes on new meaning. This in no way means that their life cannot be vibrant. We might consider Erik Weihenmayer an optout in this sense.

Of course, the optout can also pursue more mercurial and perhaps violent paths as well. At the same time, there have been many well-educated people that have pursued those paths as well.

Final Thoughts

The idea of a dropout, pushout and optout cannot be completely separated from one another. They are, to my thinking, best thought of as a related cluster if ideas that attempt to bring a more complete perspective to the issue. Optout is then simply a term that invites a perspective that seems lacking in discussions of dropouts and pushouts.

The core issue across all three perspectives is how a person's life unfolds as a result of being a dropout, optout and/or pushout. Statistical information, while useful to a degree, does not effectively illuminate the underlying causes and reasons for leaving school. What needs to be captured are the authentic stories of people who have left the education system. What happened then and is happening in their lives now? This kind of perspective on the issue of school dropouts, as far as I can tell, seems to be largely absent. Government responses are all too often antiquated, cyclical, and ineffectual (e.g. New High School Policy To Cut Dropout Rate).

It may be that there are already longitudinal qualitative studies underway that attempts to capture this important line of thought. If we can capture elements of it then we are provided with key information that open-minded educators can leverage to improve the system. In a sense, it may be that understanding this issue as completely as possible is one of the most important avenues for meaningful school improvement and sustainable educational innovation.

If you know of someone that has left school, encourage them to write about their experiences and perhaps publish them on a weblog. It would be incredibly helpful to provide a community forum for the some 40,000 high school "dropouts" in Ontario, let alone the rest of the nation and beyond.

I emailed the Ontario Ministry of Education last year and asked one simple question, "Who has made contact with the youth that have already dropped out of school?" I received no answer. My point is a simple one. If our government purports to be taking care of the best interests of our society, then do not the school "dropouts" at the very least deserve a single phone call from a helpful voice?

We should also never assume that because an individual has left the education system that their learning is now deficient. In fact, their own learning may be widened far beyond anything an education could hope to provide. These are the stories and experiences we desperately need to capture and learn from.


  1. Dropout
  2. Pushout
  3. Ontario Tries To Curb Rising Dropout Rate

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Sorry, one more thing. I don't believe it is required anywhere in Canada that students go to school. Homeschooling and unschooling are options that very few people are aware of, although the numbers are growing and school boards, like the New Westminster Board here in BC (who we work with) are beginning to see the writing on the wall and extend the invitation to non-traditional learning environments to be brought into public school.

Grace's book is the Bible for teenagers who want to leave school and get a real education.

Read Grace Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook.

That's all for now.

Love this stuff, Brian. Thanks for digging deeper...I love the optout option. I wonder what percentage of traditional "dropouts" have proactively left school to do something more interesting and productive?

More soon Rob

More soon Rob

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