by Orin Gutlerner, Anna D. Bartuska, Dr. Soo Jeong Youn, and Dr. Luana Marques

A new wave of high school dropouts is looming and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Dropping out of high school has been linked to higher instances of suicide attempts, substance abuse, and criminal activity. Indeed, roughly one in every 10 young males who leave high school without a diploma is in prison or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young males who are high school graduates. The economic effects are also devastating. A young person who drops out of high school can expect to earn $200,000 less over her lifetime than a high school graduate, and as much as one million dollars less than her peers with a college degree.

Considering the consequences, educators and policymakers have grappled with how to address the root causes of the stubbornly high rates of high school dropouts in our nation’s most economically challenged communities for decades. Billions of dollars have been spent on research and academic interventions to both predict and combat dropout rates that remain as high as 50% in some communities. Theories abound.

Some education thought leaders argue that an outdated curriculum is at the root of the dropout crisis—that what and how high schools ask students to learn is not sparking their motivation to persist through graduation. Others focus on the challenge of preparing teachers to support a diverse range of learning needs in the classroom. And still others focus on the need to bolster social-emotional and physical health interventions for students who are trying to learn in spite of the crippling effects of poverty.

The debate is hardly resolved, and the answer to each of these questions is probably, “Yes, and…” Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on high school students has added another topic to the list that previously would have never been imagined as a possible predictor of high school dropout rates: Do students have a laptop and reliable access to the internet?

A recent Boston Globe investigation cautioned that, “one in 5 Boston Public School (BPS) children may be virtual dropouts.”, with over 20% of the district’s 50,000 students not having visited Google Classroom even once, the platform used by the vast majority of high schools for sharing assignments and connecting students to their teachers.

This challenge is by no means unique to Boston. The NY Times reported back in April that one-third of Los Angeles’ high school students weren’t logging on for classes; that 30-40% of Cleveland’s families lack internet access to support remote learning for their children; and that many rural school districts serve entire regions that aren’t able to get online in the best of times. A more recent survey by a parent advocacy group found that 40% of the nation’s poorest children have been accessing online learning as little as once, or less, per week, while 83% of their peers from families with incomes over $100,000 are logging on for remote learning every day. Despite herculean efforts by school districts to address gaps in technology by providing laptops and tablets, the survey also found that about one-third of low-income families reported that their children either don’t have a device or have to share it with siblings.

Even when families get a loaner device from school, there’s still no guarantee that it will lead to regular attendance in virtual classrooms. Many students have never owned a laptop before and may struggle at first to even get it to turn on properly. They may not have the support at home to solve basic maintenance issues or navigate unfamiliar learning platforms. Students who are already anxious about keeping up with their schoolwork are now dealt another challenge of worrying about whether they’ll be able to get their device to function properly on any given day. And even when they do, many students rely solely on their family’s smartphone data plan for providing a “hotspot” for internet connectivity. Yet, recent furloughs and layoffs have left many families unable to pay for smartphone service. No data, no internet, no online learning.

While some schools, such as BPS, are planning to provide a lot of leniency in their grade promotion policies, there is no question that there are now thousands of more students who are no longer on track to graduate from high school. A recent report by EY-Parthenon found that only 35% of BPS students who fall off-track in their high school careers -- meaning at some point they become over-age and under-credited -- end up graduating within six years. They found similar trends in neighboring Connecticut, in a study funded by the Dalio Foundation, which found a 38% graduation rate among students who were disengaged in 10th grade, as measured by factors such as grades and attendance.

In other words, irrespective of their past performance, each student who has not been able to log on to keep up with his schoolwork over the past 3 months is now in danger of leaving high school altogether.

Many school systems and state education bureaucracies have developed complex and expensive models to make these kinds of predictions about which students might one day drop out of school. These “Early Warning Systems” are designed to crunch massive amounts of data on student demographics, grades, attendance and disciplinary incidents in an effort to target evidence-based interventions to those who are most at risk of becoming a dropout.

Typically it takes at least several weeks into a new school year before administrators, teachers and counselors have gathered enough data to start making those predictions and launch interventions. But we can’t afford to wait that long.

We might not know what schooling will look like in the fall, but we can spend the summer months identifying high schoolers who have not attended a teacher’s Zoom session or downloaded an assignment from Google Classroom. That will tell us exactly who needs urgent support as the 2020-21 school year opens up. Policy makers, elected officials, journalists, and concerned citizens can help by demanding that public schools transparently report their attendance and participation rates during this period of remote learning.  

Let’s prioritize getting every kid connected -- and reconnected. 

About the Authors

Orin Gutlerner is the Director of Education at Community Psychiatry PRIDE at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has spent over two decades as a teacher, teacher educator, and school leader in low-income communities. He started his career in the classroom through one of the early cohorts of Teach for America, and then later became the Associate Director of Harvard's Undergraduate Teacher Education Program and the Founding Director of the Match Teacher Residency and Sposato Graduate School of Education, an innovative teacher preparation organization based in Boston. Orin also served as the Chief Academic Officer for the Match Charter Schools, and the Director of Education for the Shah Family Foundation, which focuses on programming in Boston at the intersection of education and healthcare. He holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Anna Bartuska is the Program Coordinator at Community Psychiatry PRIDE at Massachusetts General Hospital. Anna’s clinical and research interests focus on the adaptation and implementation of evidence-based practices for the unique challenges of low resource settings. Prior to joining Community Psychiatry PRIDE, she worked in North Carolina investigating the effectiveness of technology-assisted treatment for substance use disorder and in India evaluating the mental health outcomes of orphans and separated children residing in group homes. Anna completed her undergraduate degree at Duke University in 2017 where she received a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Bachelor of Arts in Global Health with a concentration in Global Mental Health. Connect with her @AnnaBartuska

Soo Jeong Youn, PhD, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Community Psychiatry Program for Research in Implementation and Dissemination of Evidence-Based Treatments (PRIDE) at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She aims to address the access to care problem and health disparities that exist in mental health and disproportionately impact underserved populations through her clinical and research endeavors in psychotherapy process/outcome, community-based participatory research, and implementation science. @SYounPhD

Dr. Luana Marques is the Director of Community Psychiatry PRIDE at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS). Dr. Marques is a national and international expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBTs) and a leader in increasing access to scientifically rigorous mental health practices. Her decades of clinical and research experience implementing evidence-based practices encompass all types of roles and settings, from front-line staff to CEOs, diverse communities to organizations, both in the US and globally. Dr. Marques is the President of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and the author of Almost Anxious: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Worry or Distress a Problem?. Connect with her @DrLuanaMarques