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Truancy Throughout the History of Education: a Sociological Study

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Sociological Theories of Truancy

This essay will discuss some of the current sociological theories on the causes of truancy and school drop-outs among teenagers, as well as present a case study of one such dropout.


Throughout history, education was considered to be one of the criteria of social upgrading. Males tended to be the ones sent to school, and then mainly the males from the upper classes. Education has always been something desirable, and therefore, it is almost inconceivable that in a time when free quality education is available to one and all, that there would be those who would not only not avail themselves of the opportunity, but actually drop out of school. As these rates significantly continue to rise, it is important that the causes of truancy and dropout be understood so that steps may be implemented to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Causes of Truancy/Dropout:

For the past quarter century, there have been numerous longitudinal and cross-sectional studies that have repeatedly demonstrated that family background, school experience, antisocial behavior, and personal traits are reliable predictors of school drop-out (Bachman et al. 1971; Cairns et al. 1989; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Elliot and Voss, 1974; Ensminger and Slusarcik, 1992; Fagan and Opabon 1990; Rumberger 1983; Wehlage and Rutter 1986).

According to the majority of these studies, dropouts are more likely to come from families of low socioeconomic status (SES), with structural disadvantage (for example, single parent family, parents with low level of education, large family size, other dropouts in the family, etc; Astone and Mclanahan 1991; Bachman et al. 1971; Cairns et al. 1989; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Elliot and Voss 1974; Fagan and Pabon 1990; Rumberger 1983; Steinberg et al. 1984).

Boys drop out more frequently than do girls, and tend to be ethnic minorities (Rumberger 1987). However, data based on ethnicity are not entirely consistent. For instance, some researchers found that African or Hispanic Americans are more likely to drop out of school (Chavez et al. 1989; Ensminger and Sluarcik 1992) while other studies have indicated that there is no particular tendency for any ethnic minority to drop-out when socioeconomic variables are controlled (Cairns et al. 1989; Rumberger 1983).

There have also been studies which have focused on family processes that have indicated that dropouts come more frequently from families characterized by a lack of supervision, a permissive parenting style, poor aspirations regarding the schooling of the children, and negative reactions to school underachievement (Astone and Mclanahan 1991; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Fagan and Pabon 1990; McCombs and Forehand 1989; Rumberger 1983; Rumberger et al. 1990; Steinberger et al. 1989).

Another fairly consistent variable in predicting dropout is the negativity of the school experience. Dropouts tend to have a history of poor grades, grade retention, poor motivation or academic aspirations, truancy, school problem behavior, poor relationships with other students and teachers, and less involvement in extracurricular activities (Bachman et al. 1971; Cairns et al. 1989; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Elliot and Voss 1974; Fagan and Pabon 1990; Rumberger 1983; Wehlage and Rutter 1986).

Dropouts have higher usage of illegal drugs, and have more deviant or (potential) dropout friends (Cairns et al. 1989; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Elliot et al. 1974; Fagan and Pabon 1990; 1985; Rumberger 1983). Future dropouts also tend be have less positive self-perceptions, less self-confidence, and more external locus of control (Bachman et al. 1971; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Rumberger 1983; Wehlage and Rutter 1986).

Although each of these variables separately are predictors of school dropout, not all of them do so equally. Several studies have examined the correlation of school dropout predictors with longitudinal prospective samples, and school, behavioral, and family factors are the more often-reported predictors of school dropout. Elliot and Voss (1974) reported that school achievement and commitment were the most powerful predictors, while family context variables did not contribute to the prediction.

Bachman et al. (1971) found that school problem behavior, school achievement, and negative attitudes toward school were the best predictors of school dropout, followed by intellectual skills and family background indicators. In Cairns et al. (1989) study, grade retention, underachievement, aggressiveness, and socioeconomic status were the best predictors. Ekstrom et al. (1986) showed that verbal skills and family supervision and support affected school achievement and problem behaviors, which, in turn, were the best predictors of drop out. Finally, Wehlage and Rutter (1986) identified school aspirations, achievement, and socioeconomic status as the best predictors.

Although these studies tend to show some slight preference for school variables as the most significant determinants, it is difficult to conclude whether school or family factors are the best set of predictors. The identification of accurate risk factors and predictors is essential for prevention programs, especially for secondary prevention focusing on students who show signs of the tendency. Accurate and economic screening of potential dropouts requires the knowledge of how many and what indicators have to be taken into consideration.

Case Study of Adult Drop Out with Learning Disability:

Lichtenstein (1993) presented four case studies of adults with learning disabilities who dropped out of school. One of these cases was Marsha, a young woman of 18 who left school halfway into her sophomore year at age 16 to work full time. According to her English teacher, Marsha is “shy, and usually does not warm up to people until she has known them for several weeks” (Lichtenstein 1993). She lives at home with her mother and younger (7th grade) sister. After dropping out of school, Marsha took two jobs, one at a jewelry store and one part time as an assistant to a caterer. Her manager indicated that she could do well at her position if she brushed up on her math skills. Marsha cannot remember taking any math or science while she was in high school. She failed three of her five courses in each of the two years prior to leaving school. Marsha’s mother reported frustration with her own inability to help her daughter with her homework or studies due to a “lack of understanding of the subjects”. Marsha has no interest in returning to school, and felt that the school made her feel stupid, and like a kid. Marsha had been determined to be learning disabled, but there was no evidence that she had ever been involved in a formal vocational assessment. During the two years of interviews, Marsha kept her jewelry store job, and eventually moved in with her boyfriend. She said the only time she ever felt learning disabled was in school; her job made her feel like everybody else (Lichtenstein 1993).

Marsha’s case illustrates several of the dropout predictors mentioned previously. She came from a single-parent family (Astone and McLanahan 1991; Bachman et al. 1971; Cairns et al. 1989; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Elliot and Voss 1974; Fagan and Pabon 1990; Rumberger 1983; Steinberg et al. 1984); she had a negative school experience, with a history of poor grades, poor motivation, and poor relationships with teachers and other students (Bachman et al. 1971; Cairns et al. 1989l Ekstrom et al. 1986; Elliot and Voss 1974; Fagan and Pabon 1990; Rumberger 1983; Wehlage and Rutter 1986); and had less positive self-perceptions (Bachman et al. 1971; Ekstrom et al. 1986; Rumberger 1983l Wehlage and Rutter 1986). Although Lichtenstein does not give information regarding SES, the comment made by Marsha’s mother about her inability to help her daughter with her studies indicates another variable – that of level of parent education (see “structural disadvantage”).


Based on predictors from several of the aforementioned studies, and the case study mentioned above, the quality the school experience is one of the most significant predictors of dropout. While family variables cannot be successfully controlled, the school experience is something that can be studied by educators and administrators alike, with the intention of preventing as many future dropouts as possible, through an enhancement of the school experience if that can be done.

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