A simple programme of meetings facilitated by school principals and targeted at low-achieving 15 year olds can help them to identify educational opportunities that fit both their tastes and their academic ability. That is the central finding of a large-scale randomised experiment in Paris, conducted by economic researchers Dominique Goux, Marc Gurgand and Eric Maurin.
Their study, published in the June 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, reveals that the outcome of an intervention in deprived neighbourhoods of Paris has been a very significant reduction in the number of students repeating educational years (''grade repetition'') and in the number of students dropping out of school altogether. Compared with most existing interventions, this is a very low cost way to help young people who struggle at school to find the educational track most suited to their needs.
The researchers note that in many developed countries, a uniform schooling system terminates at adolescence. It then gives way to a highly stratified system of schools and ''tracks'' that typically involves a prestigious academic track and a complex structure of vocational programmes.
Given that only the best students can get access to the most sought-after tracks, such a system may be a source of disappointment and disengagement for many young people, especially the academically weaker ones and those who lack information on available options and assignment mechanisms. Many find themselves obliged to choose among tracks that they never planned to study – and this may eventually lead them to drop out of education.
The experimental research took place in 37 middle schools in the suburbs of Paris, mostly in deprived neighbourhoods. At the end of middle school (ninth grade), students in France can apply either to enter a three-year academic programme or to pursue a vocational programme. Students are also entitled to repeat ninth grade at least once.
The researchers asked school principals to pre-select the quarter of ninth graders that they considered the most exposed to the risk of early dropout. Once the lists of pre-selected students were available, the researchers randomly chose about half of the classes, in which the parents of the pre-selected students (and only them) were invited by school principals to attend two group meetings during the second term.
During these meetings, the principals discussed the specific aspirations of each family in view of the academic performance of their children and, whenever necessary, provided them with specific feedback and targeted information on alternative options.
The research finds that a year on, these parents had become more involved and had formed educational expectations better adapted to the very low academic record of their children.
This is reflected in their children''s applications at the end of the year: the proportion that included at least one low-level vocational programme in their list of possible school assignments increased by about 30%. At the same time, the proportion who asked to repeat the year (with the aim of being accepted for the more selective three-year programmes) decreased by about the same proportion.
This adjustment in applications was followed by very significant shifts in actual assignments. One year after the intervention, the grade repetition rate of these students had fallen by about 30% and their dropout rate by about 45%.
Two years after the intervention, the students had not been induced to make choices not suited to them, nor had they simply postponed dropping out: they were in the second year of vocational education in the same proportion as one year before, and there were even fewer dropouts.
By encouraging many students to opt for a vocational programme rather than repeating ninth grade, the intervention did not harm their education prospects; rather, it helped to reduce their dropout rates further.
By contrast, the intervention had no negative impact on the share of pre-selected students who chose (and ended up in) three-year academic programmes: principals were able to target their intervention so as to avoid reducing the aspirations of the best performing students.
This study reveals that having objectives that are ill adapted to young people''s academic ability is an important source of school dropouts. By showing that a simple intervention facilitated by the school principal can induce a significant fraction of would-be dropouts to identify and opt for programmes in which they can persevere and pass grades, the study contributes to the body of evidence on effective dropout prevention policies.
Compared with most existing interventions, the set of meetings considered here is extremely low cost.
''Adjusting Your Dreams? High School Plans and Dropout Behaviour'' by Dominique Goux, Marc Gurgand and Eric Maurin is published in the June 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Dominique Goux is at CREST, Paris. Marc Gurgand and Eric Maurin are at the Paris School of Economics.