From the Field

Keeping High School Students On Track to Graduation

In California, the percentage of seventh and eighth graders failing multiple classes more than doubled in the 2020-21, one study shows. In Detroit and Cleveland, more than half the students missed nearly a month of class in the past school year. And nationwide, student behavior and anxiety has alarmed parents and educators. In this context, nine education organizations are launching The GRAD Partnership for Student Success, an initiative with start-up funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to encourage and enable school districts to use early warning/on-track systems that help schools to identify and provide the support that middle and high school students need to graduate from high school ready for college and career. FutureEd associate director Phyllis W. Jordan talked with Robert Balfanz of John Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center about the partnership.

Why are early warning systems important?

There are a small number of indicators that are highly predictive of grade promotion, high school graduation and postsecondary success. If schools constantly monitor progress for all kids on these key indicators they’ll be much more able to keep students on track. Traditionally, it’s really crazy when you say it, we don’t do anything until a kid has failed a class, gotten suspended, or sent to truancy court. At that point, you have a big problem on your hands that is difficult to remediate. Early warning systems respond to that situation by giving schools access to the right predictive indicators and a team of adults who know students well and can use the indicator information to identify the best solutions, individually and systemically.

What’s most important to track?

Attendance, behavior/social-emotional status, and course performance have been shown time and time again to be the key indicators. For attendance, you’ve got to be there to learn. Chronic absenteeism tells us, ‘We better solve this now.’

Then it’s, ‘How you’re doing in your courses. Are you passing them? Are you getting decent grades in them? And, ultimately, are you, especially in 9th grade, passing the classes that you need to be promoted to 10th grade?’

And then it’s the behavior, social-emotional category. There are kids who are coming to school who are doing okay in their classes, but from a social-emotional perspective there still might be trouble on the horizon. Students might be indicating on a survey that they feel alone or that they feel under stress, or teachers are sending them to the office constantly. We have to understand what’s underneath that and change the underlying conditions to lead to better results.

How are students faring on these indicators during the pandemic?

Basically, everything is worse. That’s the sad news of the pandemic. And it’s impacting many kids who in the past were not signaling problems. Everybody has experienced the pandemic differently. And you can’t tell just by looking at students what they need. In an ideal world, we would talk to all them individually and know their stories. But there are too many kids for that. So being able to track them continually on attendance, social-emotional and behavioral measures, and course performance is a way to be much more thoughtful and proactive in responding to the pandemic.

That’s why we’re launching the GRAD Partnership, to shift this from new to normal, from organic to systematic.

How do you go about doing this?

There are four areas we’re working on. One is about spreading awareness, an understanding of what is a high-quality early warning system and the value it brings to schools and students.

Another strand of work is for school leaders to say, “Well, we’ve done some of this. We’ve got parts of this, but how do I know it is high quality?” The GRAD Partnership is developing a series of rubrics and self-assessments to answer that question.

A third area is to build the capacity of more people to be able to support schools with this work. We’re aiming to build up 50 local intermediaries in our first three years, local United Ways or education funds, or community organizations that already have connections with the schools and the community.

[Read More: Present Danger: Solving the Deepening Student Absenteeism Crisis]

The final thing is building infrastructure for the long term by creating a national improvement network, where all folks doing this work can come together and share ideas and work on problems together. We’re ultimately trying to build an online training platform so we can credential someone as an early warning facilitator or a district trainer, and we build up the capacity of people to do this work well.

What sorts of school districts do you plan to work with?

We are focusing our initial capacity in districts where a large percent of low-income and minority students are failing to graduate. You can find half or more of those students in just 4 percent of the nation’s school districts, about 500 districts.

It’s much easier to move 500 districts than 5,000. And the other powerful thing about it is that those are all high-density districts, even though they’re urban, rural, and suburban. They include a quarter of public schools and a third of public-school students. So you can reach a lot of kids with a relatively focused effort.

What do early warning systems costs, and do you see the federal Covid relief aid for K-12 schools playing a role?

All in, you are typically talking about $20,000 to $50,000 a year for two years per school for launch costs, including training, and then maybe several thousand dollars a year in on-going data costs, less if it’s a districtwide initiative. But most modern student-information systems have some sort of early warning module that schools can use to track the indicators and process the data.

For training, we think schools should invest the federal money or aid from other sources. Training for a couple of years is not a super high expense compared to extending the school day or reducing class size. It is less than the cost of adding an additional counselor and can support more students.

[Read More: Covid Relief Playbook]

To do this work effectively, schools have to reorganize their schedule so they can have teams of teachers who know students wel through advisories and other strategies. But many schools are moving in that direction already. Many middle schools are organized on a team structure. Many high schools have added ninth-grade academies, with teams of teachers and staff focused on ninth graders.

There is some skill involved in making these schedule changes cost neutral or low cost and to operate within union contracts, but many schools have accomplished this and it is the type of knowledge we are seeking to spread widely with the GRAD partnership. Compared to other things and compared to the impact you can have, this is not an expensive intervention.

What would you recommend for small districts that don’t have much data capacity? Is there a role for states?

I know Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have created early warning data systems where a district or school can supply the data and the state provides early warning analysis. But one of the strengths of early warning work is that attendance, grades and behavior indicators are in teachers’ grade books. You have all the data you need in your building. It’s much nicer if it’s in a centralized digital system and you can slice it and dice it different ways. But not having that shouldn’t be a barrier.

The nine organizations launching the GRAD Partnership are the American Institutes of Research, BARR Center, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Everyone Graduates Center-JHU, National Center for Learning Disabilities, Network for College Success-UChicago, Rural Schools Collaborative, Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Talent Development Secondary.