Dropout v. Push-out

This could have also been titled, “Our Words Matter”, “The Details” or “Speak it into (Non)Existence”…or something rich like that…



The statistics have been the same for almost three decades now. Merely naming a student a “dropout”, to harken to C. S. Lewis, seems innately, and thus subsequently, morally abject. As if that 17-year-old, fresh off of his driver’s permit and perhaps birthed to some quasi form of adult ripeness by virtue of the fact that he got to pick between three different English classes, has some mature sense of individual responsibility and then decides, “You know what? It’s time I give up this whole high school thing”.


C’mon man. These kids don’t drop out.


“Dropping out” of school insinuates an onus of responsibility that falls directly on the shoulders of teenagers through saying that they made the decision to forgo any additional schooling opportunities, including finishing their mere high school diploma requirements, because there was either too many lucrative alternative options to consider or… school was just “not their cup of tea”.


C’mon man. These kids aren’t dropping out.


When you “label” kids who do not graduate as dropouts you are alleviating the onus of the educational system’s responsibility to make the necessary changes so that “no child is actually left behind”. And when you label a kid as a dropout you are doing so without challenging the very structures that keep this three-plus-decade-old status quo of failure intact. When you mark a high school aged kid as a dropout you are ultimately saying that it is that kid’s fault and the school he or she attended has zero culpability in the final result.


George Dei, professor of Education at the University of Toronto coined the term “push-out”. He emphatically claims that, “creating textual accounts of the reality of others involves the transformation of subjective realities into an objectified discourse” (Dei, 1997). Big words and we all don’t have time to read academic articles, so allow me to paraphrase and continue on.


Hurricanes have been hitting parts of the United States for the latter part of 2017. As in many crises before, we have seen the usual language play out on our news channels. White survivors have been “looking for food to sustain in desperation” while black survivors have been “looting and scavenging the local stores”. The words that we use to articulate our experience create a textual account of circumstance and context. The words that we use create realities that are always and forever subjective. And these words that we use, over time, formalize our objective language. By using the term drop-out, we are saying that these are the type of kids who consciously leave school on their own accord, because of their own priorities, and due to their own, self-created circumstances. Language won’t change who our “dropouts” are overnight. But if we begin to change our language around dropouts, we may not have so many dropouts in the long run.


Reconceptualizing the language we use concerning education, and perhaps more importantly, educational outcomes, is more about creating textual accounts in order to dismantle prejudice structures. Think about the “3/5ths of a man” versus “human”. The language, naming, terminology, and context behind those two tropes created a reality that binded society to a form of the basic chicken and egg mentality. When we “reconceptualized” (and I put that term in quotations to signify the triviality and absurdity in the fact that we even once had this “rule”) what a “man” (or human) meant, things did not immediately change overnight. But because the language changed, our conceived reality began to change. And rightly so.


Reconceptualizing is not equal to just changing the name of the “disease” of dropout. For us to even utter that rebuttal means we must question just who houses this “disease” in the first place. Is it mainly schooling or the student? The opinion we take up determines the next steps. Nevertheless, the language we use can change things. It has transformed the culture of sexuality, smoking and explicit racisms as we all know them today. Even so, despite the progressive moves to eradicate stagnant jargon, root causes still exist. But, have we not made improvements to inclusivity surrounding those three previously mentioned terms? Have we not begun a dialogue to at least discuss such concepts? Changing the terminology to suggest that our “dropouts” are really “push-outs” will not change anything overnight. But perhaps with sleeping on it for a time, we will awaken to the conclusion that we must be very careful with the words that we use when we are defining our children.





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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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