Student Persistence, Retention in the Displaced Worked Education Program's Part-time Evening Class

David Hayes

Statement of Problem

In the fall of 1998, while working as a site coordinator for the Institute for Labor Studies and Research Displaced Worker Education Program (DWEP), I did an informal analysis of attendance figures for our part-time evening ESOL and GED classes. I discovered that attendance figures for the classes were erratic. Some students seemed to attend regularly across long periods of time. Others stayed in the program for long periods, but with highly irregular attendance. Some attended for very short periods, then dropped out. I decided to focus my inquiry on identifying student supports and barriers to attendance.


I realized that I was actually looking at two separate but possibly related issues. One was persistence - the ability to overcome obstacles and barriers and reach oneís goal. The other was retention - the ability to keep students who enroll in a program. While I developed tools to examine both issues, I devoted the bulk of my research to the issue of persistence. I began with the question: What are the forces working for and against students in our part time, evening ESOL and GED classes which support or inhibit regular attendance?


While the program name suggests that our students are all unemployed, the evening portion of the DWEP is open to workers of any status, and all of the current participants work. As evening is the only time when classroom space is available to this population, all workers in our program are currently first - shift workers. In all fifteen people - 9 women and 6 men - participated in the study. Nine were ESOL students, and six were GED. At the beginning of the project, there were 11 students on the ESOL roster and 8 in GED, but two dropped from each prior to initiation of the first participatory phase of the study. An additional 3 students entered and dropped from the GED class after the administration of the second phase. Of these, none attended more than 3 sessions before dropping. A later phase of the project attempted to contact these students, with no success.

Research process

I focused the first phases of the study on examining persistence among current participants. The first step involved a brainstorming session with students from both classes. Students were brought together for a discussion which introduced the idea of persistence and outlined the research project. They were then divided into small, mixed-level groups. Two of the groups were comprised of students with attendance rates of 70 per cent or higher (+70)over a period extending as far back as one year. One group contained students with attendance rate of less than 70 percent (-70) over the same period. Students were told that they were being grouped with other students whose attendance characteristics were similar, but the groups were not publicly labeled as plus- or minus-seventy percent.


The groups brainstormed lists in response to two questions: "What are some things which make it easier for you to attend school?", and "What are some of the things that make it more difficult for you to attend school?" Lists were then read out loud by group members and combined into whole-class lists, posted on newsprint.


Students were then asked to select one item from each list which struck them as most significant in a personal way. They copied this item down and agreed to write a short explaination as to why that particular item was of such significance. Essays were collected at subsequent class sessions.


I then developed the newsprint lists into a section of a student survey (attached soon) in which students were asked to rate the factors they'd cited using a four-point scale. Thirteen short-answer questions, aimed at gathering data on changes in student goals and additional insight into positive and negative motivational factors were included in the survey.


The survey was administered to most of the students in a subsequent session. Those not in attendance during that session were either given the survey in a subsequent session or (after consultation with their teacher on whether or not they possessed adequate skills to do so) allowed to complete the survey at home.


Following the administration of student surveys, I conducted 4 small group meetings with students to facilitate at-length discussions of the survey and related issues. I then met with the classesí teachers, asking them to respond to the same brainstorming questions that the students answered and to speculate on possible causes for drop-outs among students who enrolled in their classes.


A separate, short survey in English and Spanish was mailed with an accompanying cover letter to those who dropped out after the commencement of the project. None of the students to whom the survey was mailed responded.


When I launched the inquiry, I suspected several findings would emerge. First, as program participants were workers, I suspected that work-related issues would enjoy prominent positions among both supports and barriers. Second, as all but one of the participants were parents, I suspected that family issues would be featured in the findings. Third, and perhaps most significantly, I suspected that the study would indicate differences in supports and barriers among attendance groups that would shed some light on why some students attended at higher rates than others. The study confirmed my first two suspicions, but was not at all conclusive about the third. Conclusions which may be drawn from these finding, as well as important implications for the program and questions for further inquiry are addressed later in this report.


Work played a prominent role, both as an incentive for participation and as a barrier. Several cases were cited in which students were either denied work or faced with loss of work due to lack of education. In one instance a student said that he had been compelled to come to school as a result of losing a job which required a GED. Another recalled being denied an application for work because he didn't have the GED. A third was told that keeping his job was contingent upon improving his English pronunciation.


While no other students suggested their jobs were or had been in the balance, nearly all agreed that they were motivated in part by the desire for advancement in the workforce. Eight of the 15 students polled cited acquisition of a better job as a primary goal in the short answer survey section. In the rating section, all 15 rated "I want a better job" as having an effect on attendance, with 10 of 15 rating it as having a strong effect.


Work figured prominently as a barrier to education as well. Having too many work hours was one of only three barriers cited in all three brainstorming groups. In all, three distinct barriers were posted to the rating portion: I have to work late/overtime, I feel tired after work, and My work schedule changes. At least two-thirds of respondents in both groups rated the first two as having an effect on their attendance.


Family featured prominently as both a support and barrier as well. A remarkable 14 of 15 respondents cited My spouse supports/ encourages me as having an effect on attendance (by far the more commonly cited support or barrier) with the lone no effect respondent being divorced. Two-thirds of both groups rated this factor as having a strong effect; 80 percent or more in both groups rated it as strong or some effect. Seven of nine in the +70 group cited support from children as having an effect on attendance, with four of six in the -70 group citing this effect (the survey did not profile family status; number of children for each student is unknown).


Conversely, a full seven of 16 barriers brainstormed pointed to family or household-related responsibilities. Prominently cited among the seven was I have to do something for/with my kids, cited as having some degree of effect by eight of nine in the + 70 group and three of six in the - 70 group (again, it is unclear how many members of the -70 group have children at home). This category received second most overall citations of any barrier, one behind bad weather (with 12 citing some degree of effect, 2 no effect and 1 no response). Family health problems were cited as a barrier by 5 in the +70 group and 4 in the -70 group. Last minute responsibilities (possibly family oriented, but not expressly stated as such) was cited by six of eight respondents in the +70 group and three of six in the -70 group.


Some of these seven barriers, however, were highly specific and received predictably low responses. I have to go shopping was rated no effect by nine of the +70 group and four of the six in the -70 group (with two rating little effect). I don't have a babysitter was not a problem for most, with two little effect and seven no effect among the +70 group, and six no effect in the -70 group. I have to clean the house was cited as having no effect for eight of the nine in the +70 group and five of six in -70.


The short answer survey and essays offered additional insight into themes not raised in the brainstorming session. Prominent among these were an open-ended educational timeframe and a feeling of success and comfort at school.


Three of the 15 students felt that they would require a year or less to reach their goals (all three were GED students; one dropped out shortly after participating in the survey.) Two other GED students stated that they enrolled in the program thinking that they would earn the GED in short order. Having learned that it would take much longer than expected, they decided to persist. Neither felt any outside deadline pressure.


None of the ESOL students surveyed felt that their goals would be quickly reached. Responses such as "a lot of time" "I have no idea" or "as much as I need" were common. In all, 12 of the 15 respondents (7 of 9 in +70, 5 of 6 in -70) felt as though they would need over a year to reach their goals.


Equally common was the notion that progress toward stated goals was being made, and that students were happy to be in school. In response to the question "When you come to school, what makes you feel good?", 11 students (seven in +70, four in -70) wrote answers to the effect that the fact that they were learning made them feel good. Five said that coming to school made them feel good. When asked "what makes you feel bad?" eight (four in each group) responded that nothing did, two (both +70) said they only felt bad when they couldnít come, two (1 +70, 1 -70 ) said they felt bad when outside issue distracted them. Only one wrote that she felt bad for a classwork-related reason; she was frustrated when she couldn't write well. In listing things they liked most about coming to school, nine cited learning.


While I was not surprised to find that work and family related issues featured prominently as both supports and barriers to persistence among students in the program, I was surprised to find that the students who attended more than 70 percent of the time and those who attended less than seventy percent of the time identified in remarkably similar ways to the supports and barriers they brainstormed as well as to questions about how school made them feel. In only 5 of the 39 total supports and barriers listed did a majority of members of one attendance group answer in opposition to members of the other (these cases are noted below).


When the responses to the ratings portion of the survey are totaled according to degree of effect, startling similarities in the orientation toward supports and barriers between attendance groups emerge.


In total responses to "what makes it easier" questions:

46 % of +70 and 46 %of -70 responded strong effect

64 % of +70 and 60 % of-70 responded either strong effect or some effect

16 % of +70 and 28 % of -70 answered no effect.


In response to "what makes it more difficult" questions:

56 % of +70 and 56 % of -70 answered no effect

78 % of +70 and 79 % of -70 answered little effect or no effect

11 % of + 70 and 13 % of -70 answered strong effect


These results show a striking similarity in orientation toward supports and away from barriers among students in both attendance categories.


In comparing responses to individual supports and barriers, several noticeable differences do emerge. Here and there, the majority of respondents in one group cited some degree of effect for a particular support or barrier, while the majority of the other group cited no effect in response to the same prompt. In all cases, both supports and barriers, the group with a majority of respondents citing that the support or barrier had an effect was the +70 group.


In response to the support My relative babysits, six of eight respondents in the +70 group cite some degree of effect on attendance; none of the six -70 respondents cite this. In response to the support The school is near my house, six of nine who responded in the +70 group cited an effect; only two of five in the ñ70 group cited this.


In response to the barrier I have a health problem, five of eight who responded in the +70 group cited some degree of effect, while only two of five in the -70 group did so. Similarly, six of nine in the +70 group responded that I have a doctor's appointment had an effect, only two of five in the -70 group did. I have something to do with my kids was cited as having an effect on eight of nine in the +70 group, but only three of six in the -70 group.


An additional finding which may suggest differences among students in the two attendance groups may be found in the small-group brainstorm lists. All of the personal goals listed in response to the question "What makes it easier?" were listed by members of the positive attendance groups; none were listed by members of the -70 group.


In addition to the supports and barriers generated by the students, a small group of one support and five barriers was added to the survey rating section. The aim of this insertion was to see if any students who may have been afraid to raise classroom related issues in group work might do so in private surveys. Four of the barriers were classroom related. All were almost universally rejected. The only classroom related barrier cited as having some degree of effect was ìthe work is hard to understandî, cited by 3 respondents.


In group discussions and essays, program related problems were raised on several occasions. One student suggested that she didnít like the fact that there was only one level of ESOL instruction available, and suggested that more levels should be added. In a similar vein, another ESOL student commented that although she liked her class very much, she wished that more opportunity could be created for conversation. She added that she enjoyed learning more about English, but never really felt secure in using it because she didnít have enough opportunity to practice. A GED student pointed to a past problem; her class had gone through several teachers in her first year in the program before setting one the teacher who has been teaching for about a year. This student cautioned that the program should be careful to ensure that students get to stay with the same teacher and that it was difficult for her to learn when teachers were being replaced frequently.


Attempts to track down students who had entered and dropped from the GED class (as well as those who dropped from ESOL were completely unsuccessful. No responses to the short survey (sent both in English and Spanish) were received. In conversation sessions, students and teachers were asked to speculate on why these students dropped, genereally after attending only a few classes. GED students agreed that the students may have come to class long enough to get a glimpse of what the GED test would require from them and quit because they decided that they were not presently up to the task. The GED teacher agreed that this may sometimes be the case, citing specifically students who were clearly at different academic levels from the rest of the class or felt that the class was frustrating but found themselves unable to express their frustration. She added that students on occasion ahd told her that they were stopping out temporarily due to family or transportation problems, only to never return.

Conclusions, Implications, Next Steps

 Several valuable conclusions may be taken from these findings, all of which suggest ways in which program practice may be improved. Following are conclusions, implications and planned next steps for research and practice.


One important discovery this project finds is that students in both attendance groups seem to some extent to identify similarly to supports and barriers. This may suggest that while the supports and barriers in the lives of the students who attend regularly and those who do not may be similar, some students seem better able to overcome barriers to persistence than others. It would be useful to further this styudy by examining how students in the +70 group deal with barriers to attendance and see if any work may be done across groups to enhance the capacity to overcome barriers among attendees in the -70 group.


Of course, it is also important to note that while students in both attendance groups generally cited similar degrees of effect to survey questions, differences in survey responses did occur. The citation of personal goals among +70 attendees in brainstorming groups, for example, may suggest a more solidly established sense of educational purpose among those people. Interestingly, where differences in citations of supports and barriers were noted, the two supports and the three barriers were all cited as having a more pronounced effect upon the +70 group. One possible reason for this might be that members of this group are more acutely aware of their barriers as well as their supports, or perhaps place a greater degree of significance upon their barriers than members of the -70 group. This possible heightened concern for barriers may be a factor in working to overcome them. This certainly warrants further examination.


The study also learned that work has a powerful influence on motivation and persistence among students in our program. It is the desire to better oneís position as a worker that motivates most students to enroll and persist, and it is the demands of their current work situations that create significant barriers to persistence.


While work features prominently as a support, students do not cite job security or supportive bosses and co-workers among their supports. The motivating force connected to work is the desire to change oneís work situation or economic position. At best, the desire to obtain a better job reflects the desire to make a better life for oneself or oneís family. At worst, it reflects dissatisfaction with the current work situation or fear over the possibility of losing a job. Several students were motivated to enroll in classes because their jobs were threatened or they failed to qualify for a job.


Work also features prominently as a barrier to persistence. A number students in essays and discussions noted that in addition to overtime, covering for late second shift workers, and schedule changes, work often left them feeling exhausted.


Often, students hours between work and school are divided between the need to sleep and care for their families. One teacher commented that she feared that students often dropped out because among the three priorities of home, work and school, school was the one that could be dropped. Of course, this suggests a sort of Catch 22 in which students who attend school in order to improve work and family life find the burden of work and family life too great to participate in school, drop school or miss a significant number of classes, and fail to make meaningful educational gains. The lack of meaningful educational gains, in turn, inhibits the inability to move up in the workforce.


This is not a promising situation. Still, other survey findings indicate that progress toward higher levels of persistence and retention can be made. Students who stay in the program seem uniformly positive about their educational experience. There is an almost universal suggestion that progress is being made, and strong desire to continue studying. Students overall dispositions toward supports and barriers reflects a much stronger identification with supports. A striking find is the claim by all the married participants that a supportive spouse has an effect on their attendance. Most also claimed that their children were supportive. Students and the families of students who persist see the program as something meaningful in their lives, an agent for betterment.


The program needs to exploit the strengths the study highlights. Ways to encourage further family support for our workers and active family participation in the learning process should be explored. Family nights, homework projects which aim to involve children, end of quarter celebrations for families, and facilitation of parental participation in the childís educational development are among the possible ways in which this powerful support might be enhanced. Similarly, ways to enhance curriculum and classroom processes to better highlight studentsí progress, particularly in areas which connect to workforce development. may further encourage students to view school as a place in which transformative learning is taking place.


Finally, the program needs to improve its understanding and means of addressing retention issues among its GED population. The inability of this study to contact students who dropped from the GED class points to the glaring need for a clearly defined exit process, perhaps as part of an enhanced student support system.


Another function of this system might be to address the problem of losing students within the first few weeks of enrollment. A recent practitioner research project conducted by Pam Meader in Maine supported very clearly the theory an initial goal setting session followed two weeks later by a second goal setting session could do much to increase initial retention. Meaderís study showed that in a GED math program which suffered from high rates of dropouts in the first few weeks of each class, the implementation of this practice eliminated initial dropout altogether. Meader compared two classes, one which conducted the goal setting revisitation and one which did not. In the first, no initial dropouts occurred; in the second there were many. Retention rates over the duration of the program dropped in remarkably similar stages, but the class which conducted the goal setting activity had a much higher overall retention. In our open enrollment program, this activity would need to be conducted for each newly enrolled student - if not by the teacher, then by the site coordinator. It is my intention to initiate this practice in our program beginning with the commencement of our third quarter. Retention rates will be tracked across the quarter and a comparative study will be made.

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