Unraveling the Dropout Puzzle: A Closer Look at El Salvador’s Educational Challenge 

Two girls from El Salvador by a wall with plastic bags filled with school supplies.
Photo credit: "Day 161 - Back to school shopping" by LShave is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Once upon a time, there was a student filled with dreams and aspirations, embarking on an educational journey with a heart full of hope. This journey began with promise, but as the path unfolded, challenges and hurdles emerged. This student, like many others, entered school with gaps in preparedness, a hidden burden that slowly started to weigh on their shoulders. 

As days turned into months, and months into years, a series of negative academic encounters and socioemotional experiences began to chip away at their once steadfast motivation. Each setback, each struggle, was like a small crack in a dam, gradually widening until the floodgates of doubt and disillusionment burst open. Their self-perception, once buoyant with confidence, began to sink under the weight of these adversities. 

In this story, the school, a supposed sanctuary of learning and growth, lacked the tools to identify and heal the growing rift between the student and their educational aspirations. There was no guide to recognize the signs of disengagement, nothing to rekindle the dwindling spark of academic interest. And at home, where support and encouragement should have been a comforting balm, there was often an echoing void. Familial strife, the shadows of separations, violence, or even the profound absence of a nurturing figure like a mother, added layers of complexity to an already challenging saga. 

This student’s journey which began with hope was slowly marred by negative experiences that changed their attitudes and perceptions. The final chapter ends in a quiet, almost unnoticed departure from the world of education – a world that once held the promise of a brighter future. This story of disconnection and dropout is not just about education; it’s about the loss of potential and prosperity. 

This tale, unfortunately, is not just a fable but a reality for many young people in El Salvador, a country where only 64.4 percent of students complete upper secondary education (UNESCO, 2020). In a recent USAID-funded study, Behavioral and Social Factors Associated with School Dropout in El Salvador, DevTech’s team of researchers sought to gain a deeper understanding of the complex challenge of school dropout in that country, with the objective of informing strategies and interventions aimed at reducing the dropout rate. 

Figure 1: Push, pull, and falling out of school factors 

The study’s findings reflect the story above, whereby rather than one dominant reason, an intricate tapestry of factors is usually behind a student’s decision to drop out. More specifically, using a three-pronged framework that distinguishes between three primary causes of dropout – push factors, pull factors, and falling out of school factors (refer to Figure 1 for more information) – the researchers found that push factors, like bad grades or suspension, were the most cited reason among surveyed individuals for dropping out of school. Moreover, push factors led to a gradual disconnection from school and to factors like low motivation or disengagement, which are associated with the falling out of school category. 

The insights from this study run contrary to commonly held perspectives, especially among interviewed teachers, parents, and experts, who often attribute dropping out more to pull factors, primarily those anchored in familial circumstances and socioeconomic challenges than to push or fall out of school. They underscore the need for educational policies and interventions that are empathetic to students’ realities and cognizant of the delicate interplay of various factors influencing their educational journey. The findings from this study are not just relevant for El Salvador but resonate across borders, offering lessons for tackling school dropout globally. 

For a more detailed analysis of school dropouts in El Salvador, as well as policy recommendations to help curb this issue, read the full Behavioral and Social Factors Associated with School Dropout in El Salvador report, available on the USAID Development Experience Clearinghouse

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