2.2. Goal setting

Is there an early school leaving / drop out problem in our school?

  • Is the student in danger of dropping out?

Do we want to do anything?

  • Do I want to intrude or do anything?

What is our philosophy of schooling?

  • What is my pedagogical credo?

What is our long term aim regarding early school leaving or drop out?

  • What do I want to achieve with this student?

Without setting goals the aspects of analysis are unclear or may be unrelated to what the organization wants to achieve. The present situation and the conditions should not influence the goals. Any goals could be set even the most unrealistic ones - from then on the question is not if the goals could be reached or not. The issue is WHEN the goals will be achieved.

Just before starting to work on the EWS (or on any development project) step zero is the decision of the leader of the organization if the problem needs addressing. In order to answer this question the head of school may go on and decide for him/herself but it is a much better way to have other colleagues involved. In the CroCoos project we advise school heads to form an EWS team. 

As for students we also have to have a goal to achieve, a direction to head for. Goals are responses to challenges rather than solutions to problems and teachers should think this positive way. 

Is there an early school leaving / drop out problem in our school?

The first question the school leadership should ask itself if there is drop out and/or early school leaving is a problem for the school. This seems to be an easy one but in fact there is almost always some amount of early school leaving in all schools. While every child or young adult is important and even one student dropping out is a problem personally but on a systemic level with limited resources it has to be decided when, at what level should a school start an EWS. It is a rule of thumb that 100% efficiency is theoretical in every system. It is also well known that beyond a certain level any quality development costs way more than it yields. The school leadership must decide if they see drop out phenomenon and/or early school leaving to be a problem that has to be treated.

First of all we have to identify the problem. Many schools have exact data on the number of students who dropped out and also when did they stopped going to school. But in many cases the numbers are not available and most importantly not for years. One number is no number - that is a rule of thumb for all statistically related analysis. The scope of the drop out problem can only be assessed by looking at trends. If, for example, the trend is that we have a decreasing number of drop out students then we have to look for what has changed in the past years or what is that we have done well and we should continue. But if the numbers are getting worse we should look at the situation from another angle.

In case the school does not have data on the drop out or early school leaving situation data collection and processing has to be designed.

On student level the teacher should have information that a student may consider leaving school, i.e. identify the danger of ESL. Or in other words: Do we have a problem here?

Do we want to do anything?

The next thing that has to be done is to make a decision if the school leadership wants to do anything with the problem situation. This is not easy. In some cases schools may have several other problems which could be more important or urgent to solve. It is not unprofessional for a school leader to identify the problem and to decide not working on developing an EWS. 

But in case the school leadership decides to do something the decision must be taken seriously. A leadership decision is serious when it represents commitment to the decision. An institutional commitment must be visible and documented. Therefore it is

  • Written, signed and made public in the school for teachers and other stakeholders;
  • It has to be explained to the school staff, teachers and students;
  • It should to be repeatedly announced and developments reported to the stakeholders.
  • School leadership should ask for feedback from stakeholders in order to reinforce its commitment.

On the student level the teacher has to decide if any intervention is needed. ESL is not a tragedy in itself and may not ruin the life of a young person. A happily taken pregnancy may not suit the value system of a teacher but could be a solution to life crisis to a student. A temporary leave from school may not be the end of life and career. As one dropout student worded: “I would suggest to leave school if there is a very good reason to it. But if it is just because you don’t know what to do - don’t drop out!”

What is our philosophy of schooling?

Most schools have some kind of a motto or mission statement that summarizes the educational philosophy of the school. This, however, may be misleading. Schools many times write their philosophy and later abandon it as it has been “done”. If one asks the philosophy of the school from teachers or other staff members many times the answers are divergent because school philosophy has to be taken care of, nurtured, and revisited.

When the school leadership wishes to determine the philosophy of the school that means to create a common value system which is or could be shared by the decisive majority of the school staff. The shared value system is a solid basis for setting goals. 

Establishing a shared value system is not a verbal exercise but it can only be coined through constant discourse among the staff members. Values should be identified and interpreted in everyday situations. 

It may be the case that the leadership finds out that the values of the teaching staff is extremely divergent and it is not in line with the decision made by the school leaders to reduce dropout rates or early school leaving. It could be the case that school staff is not motivated and does not share the concern of the leaders about endangered students and thinks that they are responsible for their own faith and giving them priority is unfair towards those students who really want to learn. In this case the school leadership should work out a strategy for value changes and has to count with much longer period for introducing EWS.

If a school builds the system from the student the teachers have to ask themselves about their philosophy as well. Do they really care for students or it is just a lip service? Do they think it is the student’s responsibility if they drop out or do they have a role in it? Blaming is not an adequate attitude for developing an EWS.

What is our long term aim regarding early school leaving or drop out?

The long term or strategic aim serves as a reference and is based on the shared values and the decision that the school wants to do something. The aim has to be as specific as strategic thinking allows it to be. In any case it has to have 

  • A time frame
  • A measurable dimension
  • Possibly the positioning of the school in the future (benchmarking)

Therefore we think that a weak strategic aim lacks these and may sound like this: “Our intention is that in the future we will reduce dropout rate in the school as much as possible.”

The problem with this aim is that what do we ask ourselves next year?

  • We do not know if we still have time to improve or should we have finished already?
  • Dropout rate is down by 0,1%. Are we doing well?
  • Is this the maximum we can achieve (or the next door school is doing twice as well as we do)?

And finally: And now what?

A well fabricated strategic aim looks something like this: “In five years we will reduce dropout rate in our school so that it will be the best in the county.” Would a school have a similarly written aim it could well answer the questions above - with special regards to the “And now what?”

The resulting response to the reflective question of “And now what?” could be twofold: either to revisit and refine the strategic aim, or to introduce changes or new actions in planning the future. Either could work. 

As for the students the real question is whom do teachers consider to be a dropout? Is it everybody who leaves the school or only those who drop out from the educational system without qualification? The teacher may have an aim to keep an eye on the student and follow his/her path and offer alternatives to come back to school again or follow a career that does not need formal training or help to continue studies in another school.

ESLplus - European Learning Space on Early School Leaving

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