News: CJ Exclusives

NC Graduation Problem Starts Early

A “ninth-grade slump” leads many students to fall too far behind

Ninth grade is a make-it-or-break-it year for high school students, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Kids who skip classes, flunk courses, break school rules, or get suspended often don’t recover from the “ninth grade slump.” Instead, they contribute to the troubling number of high school students who simply “can’t hack high school” for four long years.

In North Carolina, school officials have become increasingly worried about the number of ninth-graders who don’t graduate on time.

Some of these kids never finish school; others take a year or two longer than the norm. Students who take extra time, or return later for a General Educational Development degree are not counted in the state’s graduation statistics.

Recently released reports from the Department of Public Instruction say North Carolina’s dropout rate has been steadily declining, but the fact remains that only about 63 percent of North Carolina’s freshman class of 1999 graduated from high school in 2003. The state still has a long way to go before parents and school officials are satisfied that the percentage who stick it out and graduate on time is “high enough.”

Engagement and learning

Two big themes emerge in the discussion of why some kids stay connected to the education process, while others simply disengage. The difference between students who stay with school through high school, and those who don’t, seems to hinge on whether they are motivated by internal interest and curiosity, or whether they are simply responding to external pressures.

Students who are intrinsically motivated have kept their curiosity, their need to explore, and their desire to “interact and make sense of their environment.”

These qualities virtually define infants and young children. As education author James Raffini noted, in Student Motivation to Learn, “Rarely does one hear parents complain that their preschooler is ‘unmotivated.’”

Children exploring a new world exhibit a sense of command, a desire to master their environment, and an excitement to learn about it for its own sake.


Students who give up often appear passive. They spend time reacting to their situation instead of interacting with it. A disengaged student that stays in school, says Dr. Jere Brophy, distinguished professor of education at Michigan State University, will exert the minimal effort, express boredom, or view learning as drudgery. Inevitably, some will leave formal education altogether.

There is more to motivating students than just keeping them in their seats. According to Brophy, students have to “desire to participate in the learning process.” They have to feel motivated.

There are two schools of thought about what kind of motivation works best. Experts distinguish between intrinsic motivation, effort for its own sake, and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is driven by the prospect of a reward or punishment.

Hermine Marshall, professor of Elementary Education at San Francisco State University, notes that the term “motivation to learn” means more than just a desire to participate, it is “the meaningfulness, values, and benefits of academic tasks to the learner…”

Carole Ames, dean of the Department of Educational Psychology at Michigan State University, said motivated students have developed “long-term, quality involvement in learning and commitment to the process of learning.” A student with these attitudes has really developed an intrinsic motivation to learn.

Schools, parents, and teachers, on the other hand, have often relied on the reward and punishment model, trying to find something the kids really care about. Countless kids have been grounded, appeared at detention, suspended, or otherwise penalized for failing to meet school requirements.

There is little evidence that the hours spent in these punishments have produced any excellent students as a result. Often, attitudes become worse, and so does interest in school.

How to keep students in school, both physically and mentally? Marshall, Ames, Brophy, and other education experts write that intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than rewards or punishments for keeping students in school and tuned in.

Students who are motivated to learn appreciate the value of acquiring necessary skills, even if they don’t enjoy the difficulty they experience learning them.

Parents, teachers, and the ‘slump’

“When children are raised in a home that nurtures a sense of self-worth, competence, autonomy, and self-efficacy, they will be more apt to accept the risks inherent in learning,” Brophy said.

The initial beliefs that children have about themselves are shaped by their parents. This includes whatever expectations their parents hold about the type of people they will be, Brophy said.

Teachers add to children’s idea about how successful they are likely to be in school-related activities. The teacher’s expectations also figure into the equation.

When students face difficult tasks in school, they risk failure. How a child confronts challenging (or even boring) tasks, and the way they handle failures, is very much affected by the model their parents and teachers have presented. “To a very large degree,” analyst Deborah Stipek said, “students expect to learn if their teachers expect them to learn.”

Research shows that the younger the students, the more optimistic they are in the face of failure. Ames said that “although younger children tend to see effort as uniformly positive, older children view it as a double-edged sword. To them, failure following effort appears to carry more negative implications than failure that results from minimal or no effort.”

Teachers and classroom climate are the first ingredients in remotivating students in school, Brophy said. Students have to feel safe about taking a risk, and possibly failing.

With a process called “attribution retraining,” students are encouraged to focus on specific tasks, to retrace their steps if they make a mistake, to figure out an alternative way to solve a problem instead of giving up, and to understand what they were lacking that caused the error to occur.

If students follow this approach, they are more likely to identify a problem they can fix and less likely to believe that they can’t succeed, no matter what, Brophy said.

Getting kids out of a slump can be time-consuming, since they are relearning how to think about whether they can or even want to learn. Once kids begin to see effort as an investment rather than a risk, they are on their way to reconnecting with academic work.

Disengagement isn’t necessarily a function of income. Kids who come from poor neighborhoods, or poor schools, can and do beat the odds. Other kids, from “good” schools and neighborhoods, drop out despite their advantages.

Educators understand that a student’s motivation to learn makes a great deal of difference.

Susan Black, writing for the American School Board Journal in “The Praise Problem,” and “Engaging the Disengaged,” warned that shallow, feel-good praise doesn’t motivate students.

Overdone flattery won’t ring true to older students, she said, and high-schoolers understand whether they have really made an effort. If students sense that a teacher is trying to placate them instead of establishing real expectations for their work, insincere words of praise may “actually diminish students’ desires to learn and lower their achievement.”

Students remain engaged longer when teachers create a “sense of [student] competence” and “an opportunity to reflect and assess their own work.”

Trying to manipulate students with external rewards such as excessive praise, pizza parties, or free time isn’t effective, American School Board Journal analysts conclude.

Instead, teachers must make students feel safe enough to risk making an effort, provide interesting lessons that are challenging but achievable, and offer choices. With complex material to inspire persistence, Black said, students can stretch their abilities and re-engage.

Palasek is an assistant editor at Carolina Journal.