Analyzing “Dropping Out” by Russ Rumberger

I have too much to read and not enough time to read everything that gets sent to me or seems interesting. There is no small amount of relief, if not joy, when a journal arrives or something is sent to me, and I realize after skimming it for 30 seconds that I can simply file or delete it. Sometimes, however, I have to read every sentence in a text not simply because it is well written but because the author has something to say. Sometimes, because my time is short, I find myself in the odd position of savoring every chapter of a book while at the same time cursing the author—why couldn’t this book simply be half-baked so I could rush on to the next text? Consequently, for the last month or so, I’ve been muttering “Damn you, Russ Rumberger!”

Professor Rumberger of UC Santa Barbara has written a book on dropping out. The book is superb. It is erudite, scholarly, engaging, and provocative. The almost 400-page book is the work of a lifetime and is testimony to how a first-rate scholar builds his case for a vexing problem by calling on historical research, data sets from multiple methodologies, and research that spans over a generation.

If we want to increase college-going rates and improve college readiness we are going to have to deal with the continuing problem of high school dropouts. What we do, however, depends not simply on one or another strategy, but on the data we employ to understand those who drop out. Rumberger also makes a convincing case that we not only need to consider the causes of dropping out, but also the purposes of our schools. I can make a convincing case for “college for all.” Rumberger can make a more convincing case that if “all” = 100% then we actually will contribute to dropping out.

Sometimes academics cook up arcane language and terms that only those of us in the rarefied atmosphere of the academy will understand (Pierre Bourdieu, anyone?). Early in his text Rumberger talks about dropping out as a status and an event. I actually find such a distinction very helpful in thinking through what’s going on, and what we might do.

I could say the text is depressing because he offers no magic bullets. But the work is realistic more than anything else. He cautions us—as any good researcher must—that if there were a magic (and inexpensive) solution, then everyone would be doing it. Instead, he works his way patiently through the familial, organizational, and individual characteristics that influence dropping out. He then walks us through the nature, consequences, causes, and possible solutions. Because the text is so well written, and the logic of his argument so sound, the reader never gets lost.

I also appreciated the tone of the book. The author is always present, but this is by no means a confessional memoir of someone who has spent his academic career researching the topic. The text is also not a diatribe where students, families, teachers, or policy experts are villains or victims. He describes an environment the way I have seen it played over the years—one where people are trying to cope and they do what they think is the best that they can. Some cope better than others, but in the end, solutions seem to evade us.

Rumberger calls upon all methodologies and various strands of programs to consider what possible solutions might look like. He is someone who is big on accountability, and consistent in the observation that systemic change will take time. He recognizes that students may drop out of a school, but much of the work to lessen dropping out will occur with families and in communities.

The day I finished this book we went to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and saw Gustavo Dudamel conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. On the way home I thought how rare—and pleasurable—it was to watch two maestros at work on the same day.


William G. Tierney is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education.

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