A Student Drops Out Every 25 Seconds: Here's a Main Reason WHY

"Our school system needs to change."

-Captain Obvious

The definition of "insanity" has been aptly described as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In this research based article we explore one of the primary (often hidden) reasons why our school system is falling short of its potential and, more importantly, introduce a way that teachers, principals, parents and yes, STUDENTS, can propel unpresedented success. HINT: Like fish swimming in the ocean who do not know what what "water" is, most people do NOT know the information that we are about to learn. Read on to learn reasons why many schools are stuck and practical ways to positively and profoundly alter the trajectory.

Today, schools are brimming with latent potential. Teachers, students and other talented school leaders work tirelessly, infusing resources into the input side of the educational equation (time spent in school, effort expended, lesson planning, etc.) and yet the outcome side of the equation (percentage of students who graduate, student readiness for the workforce, etc.) reveals that our school system is falling vastly short of its potential (Jones-Smith, 2011).  “On a national basis, 1.3 million high school students from the class of 2010 did not graduate with a high school diploma, which amounts to a loss of 7,200 students from the U.S. graduation pipeline every school day, or approximately 1 student every 25 seconds” (Diplomas Count, 2010).  With these statistics in mind, in about the time it took you to read this paragraph, a student has likely dropped out of school. 

What’s is wrong?   

As human beings, our brains are hardwired to ask "what is wrong" rather than "what is right". Good news though....we can rewire this tendency and rewrite our destiny. 

From an evolutionary perspective, human beings adapt biologically in order to survive as a species (Darwin, 2003). Centuries ago, our ancestors faced different threats including ferocious predators like lions, tigers and bears, who could, at any given moment, cause serious pain or even death. Not surprisingly, as part of this evolutionary process enabling humans to stay alive and procreate, neurological predilections and biases developed to help our ancient relatives avoid infection, death and curtail reproductive opportunities (Hibbing, Smith, & Alford, 2014).  One such predilection, negativity bias, is the principle that “negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive events” (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). Effectively, people tend to respond more strongly, give more attention and ascribe increased importance to negative elements within their environment. In the past, this bias helped people stay attuned to negativity in the form of the aforementioned predators such as lions, tigers and bears. They could notice and thus avoid the problems before the problems consumed them. Literally. This psychological predilection, a negativity lens which has widespread implications, continues to manifest today in a wide array of socially relevant contexts. The tendency to give more attention to what is wrong is hard wired into our human brains. Examples include the tendency towards loss aversion, which refers to the greater weight people place on avoiding loss as compared to achieving comparable gain (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984) to the propensity to recognize angry versus happy faces in other people (Hansen, 1988).

Importantly, we know that there are psychological and biological causes and implications to our biases. “People generally tend to be more attuned to negative faces, words, and social information, and both the autonomic and central nervous systems tend to have measurably higher levels of activation in response to negative than positive stimuli (Rozin, 2001).” 

How might such biases relate to education?

What if our schools are being run on a mistaken assumption?  There is HOPE in this possibility because we can replace this assumption with an alternative that propels our success.

In U.S. schools today, very few principals, teachers and students arrive at school fearing that a lion, tiger or bear might suddenly attack in Mrs. Johnson’s third period class, for example.  However, as an educational collective, many, even as well intentioned, talented leaders, remain focused on the negative. Our educational system has traditionally been “deficit-based”, approaching students, teachers and data with a concentration on problems- focusing on where people fall short (Anderson, 2003).  The "norm" is to look for what our student's are getting wrong, introduce an intervention, collect data and start again. A deficit based approach is not inherently “bad” or to be altogether avoided. After all, the capacity to identify problems and work towards solving those problems can be a functional skill (Gonzalez & Education, 2009) as part of a healthy diagnostic repertoire.  However, it is important to note that the approach is a singular tool and is best used as part of a robust tool belt that offers different tools, including strengths-based ones, appropriate for different scenarios (Jones-Smith, 2011). 


   Systems Level Deficit Approach


Is the glass half full? Half empty? 

It doesn't matter. What matters is that we realize that we can refill it & teach others to do the same. 


With an eye towards wide scale school improvement and reform, various initiatives have been offered that fall under the general umbrella of “school accountability”.  It is worth noting that the dictionary definition of accountable is “to be answerable for one’s misdeeds” (Webster’s New Riverside University Dictionary).  From the onset, this implies that if someone makes a mistake (a problem), s/he is held responsible for the mistake to the appropriate party (Kim, 2004). Recent accountability initiatives include statewide systemic reform such as the focus on minimum competency testing in the 1980s, the statewide systemic reform efforts of the 1990s, test based accountability in the 2000s (No Child Left Behind) and Common Core State Standards of the 2010s (Hashtagcommoncore, 2017).

Though well intended, such efforts often face the reality that some students either don’t care about the tests no matter what the school offers as incentives or students are struggling learners, making progress but not anywhere close to “proficient” as defined by the test.  Students, teachers and schools are sometimes, directly or indirectly, punished for the problems that manifest on tests. (Hawkins, 2015)  Despite the apparent failure of high-stakes standardized testing on a systems level, these tests, well intentioned, persist in order to measure student and school “success” which, somewhat ironically, leaves many feeling as if their problems or deficits (rather than strengths) are actually being measured (Hawkins, 2015). Due to the reality that schools often fall short of accountability efforts, the basic components on a systems level can be characterized by the following visual. The assessment and accountability lenses often focus on what is not going well.


School Level Deficit Approach

To someone with a hammer as their only tool, everything looks like a nail. -Unknown


On the school and district level, “continuous improvement” is a prevailing term that covers an array of efforts also framed as problem solving initiatives, decision making models and the like. Although such efforts vary in terminology and specifics, most involve components including problem identification, interventions and data collection. (Flumerfelt & Green, 2013; Schmoker, 2006). 

The term “continuous improvement” is used across industries to describe a process or approach to problem solving that represents an ongoing effort to improve outcomes (American Society for Quality, n.d.). In continuously improving systems, change occurs both quickly and incrementally, as organizations learn from experience while testing and refining strategies to produce better results. In education, continuous improvement can refer to a school, district, or other organization’s ongoing commitment to quality improvement efforts that are evidence-based, integrated into the daily work of individuals, contextualized within a system, and iterative (Park et al., 2013).

In all cases, continuous improvement involves a cyclical approach to problem solving that enables schools to reflect, identify problem areas, introduce potential solutions to those problems, observe and evaluate interventions, and adapt interventions based on data (Flumerfelt & Green, 2013; Schmoker, 2006).  

Thus, continuous improvement can be a useful tool. The point of emphasis here is that such an approach is so pervasive that it can become the whole toolbelt. The focus on deficits or problems is a seemingly innocuous, unquestioned component embedded within.

A deficit based approach has implications for schools in various settings. Specifically, though, we know from research on urban schools that an impersonal, bureaucratic school culture undercuts many of the teaching attitudes and behaviors that draw on student strengths (Weiner, 2006). This bureaucratic culture fosters the pervasive assumption that when students misbehave or achieve poorly, they must be “fixed” because the problem inheres in the students or their families, not in the social ecology of the school, grade, or classroom. (Weiner, 2006)

A subcategory of deficit-based approaches, deficit thinking, has been described as “a pseudoscience founded on racial and class bias. It ‘blames the victim’ for school failure instead of examining how schools are structured to prevent poor students and students of color from learning.  There are linkages between prevailing theoretical, deficit perspectives and contemporary practices which abound in schools and this interplay contributes to the complex historical development of deficit thinking. (Valencia, 2010) Three aspects– the genetic pathology model, the culture of poverty model, and the "at-risk" model can contribute to poor students, students of color, and their families being pathologized and marginalized. (Valencia, 2010).

Stepping back once again, continuous school improvement involves a cyclical approach to problem solving that enables schools to reflect, identify problem areas, introduce potential solutions to those problems, observe and evaluate interventions, and adapt interventions based on data (Flumerfelt & Green, 2013; Schmoker, 2006).   Once again, on a school level (before we discussed systems), deficits are a primary focus. Problem identification, a deficit-based approach, often frames and sets the tone for other steps accordingly:


Individual Level Deficit Approach

Let's "PAUSE" for a second. If someone walks up to YOU at the beginning of the day and points out all of your deficits, how will you feel? Alternatively, if a person walks up to YOU and points out all of your strengths, how might you feel?  In which scenario are you most enthused, most energized, most prepared to teach a class, tackle an issue and begin to change the world? The same dynamic applies to our students.  


Negative psychological ramifications for Individuals (not just groups) can also result from deficit-approach. Developmentally, young children who grow up not feeling safe often look for potential dangers even when none exist and can develop psychological difficulties including generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and more (Rockhill et al., 2010).   If a student or teacher is consistently overwhelmed, this predilection can affect the amygdala, the brain’s fight, flight or freeze response, and leave them in a state of “perpetual amygdala hijack”. In this state, information does not make it to their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning (Murray, 2007)


Within the trauma-informed schools movement, educators are taught that the problem centered, labeling question “What is wrong with you?” can have harmful, re-traumatizing effects on students and adults alike. Shifting to more contextually mindful questions, such as “What happened to you?” (Oral et al., 2015)  or “How might you use your story as motivation and learning fuel to catalyze success for you and others moving forward?” (Schwartz, 2016) can pave the way for empowering discussion and action.

This negativity bias, focused on problems, has been etched into our educational landscape in an unquestioned manner and operationalized in our schools to the point where policy, practices and mindsets are often built upon and guided by the question: “what is wrong?”. Whether through interpersonal interactions, mandated testing or national school reform efforts, one might begin to wonder as we focus almost exclusively on problems: are we, figuratively speaking, still looking for the lions, tigers and bears and missing a beautiful view beyond the trees to the forest?


Change our Questions, Change our Lens, Change our World

Changing the questions we ask changes where we look.

Changing where we look changes what we see.

Changing what we see changes what we do.

Changing what we do changes the world. 

Image from the "Prescription to Change the World" video:   HERE

Image from the "Prescription to Change the World" video:  HERE

Thusfar, we have begun to see a pattern of deficit based approaches in education on a systems, school and individual level. A strengths-based approach, on the other hand, involves a focus and investment in strengths. (Rath, 2008).  In research involving 20,000 in-depth interviews and studies of more than one million work teams as well as 50 years of Gallup polls about the world’s most admired leaders, a key finding was that the most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. When an organization’s leadership fails to focus on an individual’s strengths, the odds of that employee being engaged are 9% whereas when leadership does focus on that individual’s strengths, the odds of success soar to 73%. (Rath, 2008). Would the exponential power of a strengths-based focus, which is often counter to the current educational paradigm, apply to schools as well?  Research suggests that the answer is a resounding YES.

Specifically, research illustrates that strengths-based educational programs provide a multitude of benefits producing increases in student optimism, strengths awareness, self-confidence self-acceptance, goal directedness, affirmation of others, sense of control, fewer disciplinary actions, timely class attendance, academic self-efficacy, optimism, interpersonal skills, perseverance and purpose (Clifton, 2006).

“A strengths-based model embodies a student-centered form of education that adopts the primary goal of transforming students into confident, efficacious, life-long learners whose work is infused with a sense of purpose (Anderson, 2004). This approach to teaching can be highly individualized, as efforts are made to personalize the learning experience by allowing students to set personal goals based on their areas of talent and strength and encouraging them to apply their strengths in novel ways (Cantwell, 2006)”

Chart created as part of the Empowered Teaching course, Drew E. Schwartz

Chart created as part of the Empowered Teaching course, Drew E. Schwartz

With so many resounding benefits to incorporating a strengths-based approach (along with a deficit-based approach as appropriate), one may begin to wonder why these methods are not more widely used. Above we see a chart describing some of the distinctions between a deficit vs strengths based approach.

External Measurement Rules

As a pattern, schools have focused on accountABILITY and forgotten to count ABILITY (strengths).


In terms of school reform efforts, national “accountability efforts” have come and gone with different names and distinctions.  Ultimately, a deficit based approach is useful and needed at times. Certainly, at times it is incumbent on us, as educators who care deeply about our students and the future of our world, to be fearless in tackling problems. However, as Jane Dutton articulates so clearly:

Our problem-centered approach to studying organizations, which is also reflected in how we teach organizational behavior, may blind us to the everyday acts of extraordinariness in organizational systems. However, if we turn toward instances, processes, structures, and their interaction that produce human flourishing, vitality, capability, resilience, and other positively deviant behaviors, we get new angles on organizational life and a new injection of inspiration to sustain and invigorate our own scholarship.

This is the insight of the expanding community of scholars and practitioners who are pursing appreciative inquiry (AI). Led by the original articulation of this paradigm by Cooperrider and Srivastva in 1987, this community of action research has at its core the idea that a primary task of research is to “discover, describe and explain those social innovations, however small, which serve to give ‘life’ to the system” (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987, p. 88). This look toward life for understanding, for insight, and for inspiration takes AI researchers and practitioners toward the positive exemplars of human organizing. The focus on positive deviance and what it is about organizations that enables this deviance is also gaining momentum under the umbrella of positive organizational scholarship(Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, in press). The movement to focus on what in work organizations enables human strengths and virtues follows from the movement and growing interest in positive psychology.

With this in mind, while being mindful of the full continuum of educational experiences, we can also concurrently acknowledge, with equal bravery and vision, that focusing almost exclusively on deficits and building systems around that pursuit might leave little time to foster growth in student and educator strengths. We may be missing opportunities to invest in internal resources. There is an opportunity cost.  Importantly, and with great promise and hope, there is also opportunity.

One of the main reasons "why" students are dropping out of school like flies (and a main reason why we as educators are so stressed) is because, as a system, we haven't yet connected with their WHYs. Their purpose. Their motivation.  Their strengths. The part of them that is poised to change the world. 

Thus, as we bring a lens of strengths, one that values individual and collective internal resources with vigor, bringing them to the forefront, we may be faced with a new vantage point. Every student, every teacher, every parent, every principal and every person that steps into a school has unique STRENGTHS. Unique TALENTS. When our school system is reimagined to draw upon our collective strengths, the sky is the limit. One high leverage way to proactively empower students, teachers and principals to connect with their internal resources (purpose, strengths, growth mindset, etc). There is HOPE. We can do this together.  From this new, birds eye view, we can ask: When we combine our individual and collective strengths, what unprecedented community solutions might we catalyze together?

Six Easy Steps to Springboard Your Success:

1. Make a list of three or more STRENGTHS that you possess.

2. Ask three other people to name three strengths that they see in you. 

3. Determine how you use your strengths currently and how you might use your strengths moving forward as fuel for a new project (or in a new area of your life).

4. Create a SMART Goal (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound) for how you'll use your strengths in the near future.

5. Sit down with your students (or children) and have them complete steps 1-4 above.

6. Celebrate your progress!


With what we have learned together in mind and due to the fact that a student drops out of school every 25 seconds, I am offering teachers and principals a discount on my strengths-based video courses. Click HERE to sign up:

 25% discount off research based Empowered Teaching Online Video courses for the next 25 days. (through 4/27/17)

These courses empower educators, helping them connect with purpose and strengths every day. For every student. Together, we CAN look our fears squarely in the eye and bravely equip our amazing educators with tools that propel their success and the success of their students. Together, we will change our world for the better. Sign up for the SALE priced courses HERE today.   


*References from this article can be accessed HERE