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Transition and Attrition in the German Secondary School

This proposal describes a longitudinal mixed-methods study of transition and attrition from Grade 8 to Grade 9 and beyond at one type of German secondary school, the Hauptschule. The proposed research area is Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The sample will include 14 Hauptschulen and 5 Haupt- and Realschulen. Expected participants will be around 600 families, 40 teachers, and 19 school principals. Data collection will take place four times over a time span of 16 months. The first measurement time will be in June 2013 and the last in October 2014. The aim of the research is to investigate demand- and supply-side issues that affect families’ decisions to continue or discontinue with education after children have fulfilled nine years of compulsory schooling.

2.0 Literature

2.1 Background

In 2008, around 65,000 (7.5% of the respective age cohort) students left German schools without completing the German Hauptschulabschluss. Between the German Länder as well as between regions in the Länder exist remarkable differences in terms of completed Hauptschulabschlüsse. On average, the western German Länder have lower rates of students leaving secondary school without a Hauptschulablschluss than the Länder in eastern Germany. In addition, significant differences exist between school leavers without a Hauptschulabschluss from urban and rural areas within the Länder. Urban areas normally have higher numbers of school leavers without Hauptschulabschluss than rural ones (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung, 2010, p. 90).

The question whether certificates or competencies are more important for life opportunities and an individual’s career has been discussed and is considered controversial. Despite this discussion, it is indisputable that school certificates are particularly important for individuals’ further careers because many education and vocational programs require certificates as entry criteria. In addition, in terms of comparable qualifications, a person with a “higher” certificate normally has an advantage compared with someone who has a “lower” one (Baumert & Schümer, 2001, p. 31). Therefore, certificates are important for life opportunities in modern society, and those who do not possess those certificates such as the German Hauptschulabschluss face limited life opportunities.

These limited opportunities have various negative outcomes for the individual as well as for society as a whole. Rumberger and Lim (2008) stated that for the United States, “Compared to high school graduates, dropouts have: higher rates of unemployment; lower earnings; poorer health and higher rates of mortality; higher rates of criminal behavior and incarceration; increased dependence on public assistance; and are less likely to vote” (p. 1). These negative outcomes generate enormous social costs for dropouts such as subsidizing higher criminal activity, poorer health, and increased public assistance (Rumberger & Lim, 2008, p. 1). Not only studies from the United States point out the negative effects of attrition on the individual as well as on society. In a recent study in Germany, Klemm (2010) estimated that around €204 million were used in Germany in 2010 to provide compensatory education programs (Übergangsprogramme) (Klemm, 2010, p. 25). Klemm (2010) stated that had these resources been used to support those students earlier in school then many would not have experienced failure in school, requiring later remediation (p. 25).

The adequate use of resources and measures to address the attrition phenomena in Germany requires a deeper understanding of why students decide to discontinue their formal educational careers. However, studies in Germany and even in German-speaking countries that deal with attrition are rare and limited in their capacity to explain students’ attrition as the result of an array of factors related to the individual as well as surrounding institutions such as family, peer group, school, and community. In the two most recent studies, Klemm (2010) and Hoffmann (2010) gave a descriptive overview of attrition in Germany based on German education statistics. Both studies disclosed variations in terms of attrition between the German Länder. Klemm (2010) also found further variations with regard to attrition rates within each German Länder in particular between urban and rural areas but also between urban and rural areas themselves. In addition to the differences at the Länder level as well as the community level, further differences exist between the various types of school in Germany. In most of the Länder, the majority of students without a Hauptschulabschluss left the so-called Förderschule and only second most frequently from the Hauptschule, except in Berlin where the result is the reverse (Hoffmann, 2010; Klemm, 2010). Hoffmann (2010) showed that only a minority of students left school in early grades (0.3% in Grade 6 and 7.3% in Grade 7). The majority of the students left school in Grades 8 and 9 (around 30% in Grade 8 and around 60% in Grade 9). Both authors found that more boys than girls and nearly double as many foreigners left school without a secondary certificate (Hoffmann, 2010; Klemm, 2010). In addition to descriptive analysis, Hoffmann (2010) used inferential analysis based on the SOEP (German Socio-Economic Panel Study). She found that the risk for dropping out of school increased mainly based on three variables: citizenship, type of school (in particular the Hauptschule), and education level of the father (Hoffman, 2010). Stamm (2007) and Riepl (2004) produced literature reviews on attrition primarily based on literature available in the United States. In summary, the available Germany-focused literature on attrition is limited and mainly used descriptive statistics available from educational figures with the exception of Hoffman (2010).

A limitation of the Germany-based studies is their inability to describe attrition in a comprehensive model using individual and institutional factors that result in attrition. Therefore, it is difficult to gain insight into the dynamics of the underlying processes that finally result in attrition.

In other countries such as the United States, the situation in terms of attrition research looks different. In one of the most recent reviews, Rumberger and Lim (2008) analyzed several published studies with regard to attrition predictors. Unfortunately, it is not possible to describe their findings in more detail in this proposal, but Rumberger and Lim (2008) demonstrated that it is difficult to identify a causal relationship between attrition and a single factor. Likewise, Patton and McMahon (1997) used systems theory, which highlights the importance of interrelated functions in a system instead of isolated phenomena for career development. Accordingly, attrition seems to be the result of various, interrelated demand- and supply-side factors (Rumberger & Lim, 2008). In its complexity, Rumberger and Lim (2008) compared attrition with other kinds of education achievement such as test scores, which are also influenced by an array of factors over time. However, despite the limited possibility of interpreting the results from the United States for Germany, studies from the United States as well as from Australia offer helpful suggestions for developing an attrition study in Germany.

2.2 Conceptual Framework

Studies from Germany, the United States, and Australia provide an understanding of attrition-related factors. A useful step would be to develop a model that includes supply- and demand-side factors that would be of value for policy and planning purposes. For policy purposes, it is particularly important to gain a deeper insight into the mechanisms by which parents and their children make schooling decisions. In this context, it is helpful to examine these decision factors over time rather than cross-sectionally and to try to understand attrition from the perspective of the deciders (children and their parents) as well as from an external point of view that can unravel patterns across distinctive groups in society.

Research highlights the importance of decision-making processes for explaining inequalities of educational and life opportunities (Becker, 2004; Bos et al., 2003; Mare, 1980; Baumert & Schümer, 2001). These processes are influenced by individual and institutional factors. Individual factors include social, cultural, and ethnic background and institutional factor aspects such as performance-based selection criteria, quality and availability of schools, and other constraints (Hillmert, 2005). In this context, the advantage of education decision theories (such as Boudon, 1974; Breen & Goldthorpe, 1997; Erikson & Jonsson, 1996) is obvious because they allow various, previously unrelated factors to be combined to explain why some children decide to continue their schooling and others do not (Kristen, 1999).

Boudon (1974) depicted the importance of educational decisions at specific points (transition points) of an education system by highlighting three interrelated factors: (i) individual child aspects such as age or performance in school, (ii) the utility of education for the families, and (iii) specific selection mechanisms by education systems (Boudon, 1974). In this context, it is important to note that after children have fulfilled nine years of compulsory education, educational decisions are not fixed toward predefined transition points such as the one from primary to lower secondary school in Germany. According to Maaz, Hausen, McElvany and Baumert (2006), decisions vary in terms of aspirations and academic performance in school in relation to social class. Crucial for understanding of Boudon’s theory is his differentiation with regard to primary and secondary effects for an explanation of the inequalities in educational opportunities.

Primary effects describe the influence of social class on the academic performance of children in school. Variations between the classes are the result of differences in terms of economic, cultural, and social resources. In addition, social classes vary with regard to the utilization of existing school resources (Maaz, Baumert, & Trautwein, 2009).

Secondary effects are independent from a student’s academic performance. They are the result of the affiliation with a certain class in society in relation to specific career aspirations and decisions. Distinctive classes assess the anticipated utilities and costs of further education differently. According to Boudon (1974), members of lower classes evaluate the costs of achieving specific positions higher and the probabilities lower than those from higher classes. Therefore, educational decisions differ with regard to the location of a person in the social strata even if the academic competencies are similar (Maaz et al., 2009).

Figure 1 presents the theoretical model proposed for this study. This model is an extended version of a subjectively expected utility (SEU) theory model proposed by Maaz et al. (2009). It considers various interrelated factors between the individual and relevant institutions such as family, peers, school, and community. The design reflects recent developments in studies on educational decision making and attrition.

According to the model, educational decisions are influenced by the (i) family resources, (ii) family’s calculation of probable success in reaching a specific degree, (iii) alternatives available to the child and their perceived costs and expected returns, and (iv) the child’s school performance. The family’s calculations of the probability of success are affected by the performance of the child in school and family resources. The performance of the child in school is affected by (i) the child’s individual characteristics; (ii) teacher, classroom, and school characteristics and resources; and (iii) family resources. Alternatives available to the child, their costs and expected returns are affected by (i) the community; (ii) teacher, classroom, and school characteristics and resources; and (iii) family resources.

Figure 1. Genesis of educational decisions with regard to SEU theory (extended version/ Basic model adapted from Maaz et al., 2009, p. 17)

A school system can influence family decision-making most directly by changing the characteristics and resources of the school, classroom, and teacher, and thus improving the academic performance of the child and changing the alternatives available to the child, their costs, and expected returns. Government as well as community initiatives can improve the school and available alternatives, costs, and benefits.

3.0 Research Design

3.1 Purpose

The proposed study aims to better understand the phenomenon of retention and attrition in one specific type of German school, the Hauptschule. The study considers two transition points as well as the time period between in the Hauptschule:

Transition/attrition between Grade 8 and Grade 9 in the Hauptschule,

Persistence and attrition in Grade 9, and

Transition after Grade 9.

3.2 Overall Design

The research study follows a longitudinal design. Data will be collected four times between June 2013 and October 2014 from students in Grade 8 of the Hauptschule, their parents, teachers, and school principals. These students will then be followed from Grade 8 up to 3 months after they leave the Hauptschule.

Four types of data will be collected and analyzed:

Existing statistical data (national, Länder, and community levels);

Original qualitative and quantitative survey data of a cohort of students, their families, teachers, and school principals;

Data at the school level about the participation, attendance, academic performance of the students as well as on the special characteristics of the participating schools;

Life-history data on five selected individuals over the duration of the study.

Statistical analysis will be used to understand the primary focus of the research—individual and institutional factors related to decisions on attrition and transition. Statistical analysis will also be used to determine national-, Länder-, and community-level data. Life-history data and open-ended survey questions will be examined with qualitative analysis.

3.3 Data

The following table describes the kind of data to be collected and the respective sources.

3.4 Data Collection

Referring to the previous table, data types 1 and 2 will be collected from the responsible agencies. Data types 3–6 and 9 will be collected during the field research visits as well as data types 7 and 8. Written questionnaires are preferred because it is expected that the majority of the participants is literate. Survey instruments will be developed for students, parents, teachers, and principals. The survey instruments include mainly close-ended questions for quantitative analysis and only a few open-ended questions for qualitative analysis. For the life-history interviews, specific interview protocols will be developed.

The Hessian Ministry of Education will be contacted by the researcher, and the required permission obtained. After permission from the ministry is gained, the school principals will be invited to participate in the study. The principals will be asked to contact the parents of Grade 8 students and to forward the information letter that includes basic information on the purposes, procedures, risks, the voluntary nature of participation in the study, and the required consent forms to the parents and teachers. Persons who decide not to participate in the study can do this without embarrassment by not returning the consent forms to the schools.

After permission has been received from the parents, teachers, and principals, the questionnaires will be sent to the participants to obtain the student- and school-level data. Participants for the life-history interviews will be invited among the participants who agreed to participate in the study, asked for permission to carry out life-history interviews, visited, and thanked at the end of the interview.

Completed questionnaires can be sent to the researcher for safekeeping via mail. Individuals who participate in the life-history interviews will be asked to fill out an audio release form before their interviews are recorded. Like the questionnaires, the audio tapes will be stored in a strongbox to which only the researcher has access.

The participants’ names are necessary to link the school with the individual data as well as to contact the participants for follow-up interviews. Therefore, the participants will receive questionnaires with specific identification numbers. Only the researcher will have access to the file (ID codebook) that allows the identification numbers to be connected to the names of the participants. Like the questionnaires and the audio tapes, the ID codebook will be stored in the strongbox.

During the data entry, it will not be possible to link data with specific individuals because the questionnaires contain only identification numbers.

3.5 Instruments

The instruments will be designed to collect the required data as outlined in Figure 1 of the proposal. The survey instruments are organized in several sections related to the measurement time in which they will be used.

3.6 Time Line

Table 2 describes the different measurement times as well as the instruments used.

3.7 Sample

In June 2013, the research will be carried out at all Hauptschulen (14) and Haupt- and Realschulen (5) in Frankfurt am Main, Hesse. Around 600 families (all eighth graders), 40 teachers (all class teachers), and 19 school principals (all school principals) will be invited to participate in the study. Frankfurt am Main was selected based on purposive sampling. Frankfurt belongs to the category of cities in western Germany with the highest numbers of migrants.

3.8 Analytical Strategy

Statistical data will be examined to determine levels of transition and dropout as well as trends over time. The primary dependent variables dropout and transition will be analyzed with regard to regional variations (Länder and community) as well as by relevant groups such as boys and girls, immigrants, etc.

The survey data will be analyzed in similar ways but with regard to a wider range of independent variables. Bi- and multivariate relationships between the dependent and independent variables will be examined.

The data gathered from the live-history interviews will be analyzed with standard qualitative techniques.

3.9 Ethical Considerations

Protecting human subjects and minimizing risk are major concerns. Therefore, the study will be conducted under consideration of all existing regulations for the protection of human subjects.

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