Sarah Sparks wrote yesterday, in the blog for Education Week, about the extensive tracking of student success taking place in Maryland. The tracking recently revealed that the early warning signs of a student at risk of dropping out may become visible at the very start of a child’s school career. According to Sparks, “the affluent and tech-savvy 149,000-student Montgomery County public schools, in a suburb of Washington, is building one of the first early-warning systems in the country that can identify red flags for 75 percent of future dropouts as early as the second semester of 1st grade.” She tells us that although 28 states currently use early-warning systems that can be used to target interventions based on profiles of characteristics of students who fail academically and drop out of school, few states or districts have reports available to principals and teachers multiple times a year.
Thomas “Chris” C. West, Montgomery County’s evaluation specialist who built the tracking formula, said,
“It’s a very sobering point, but I take it as an opportunity: If these kids are always with us, we can do something about this. Remember, these are signs of students who drop out — it doesn’t mean they are dropouts.”
According to research from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, research shows that three red flags — chronic absenteeism, sever disciplinary infractions, and reading or mathematics failures — signal a student’s disengagement from school and predict his or her risk of dropping out as early as 6th grade. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more days of school, excused or unexcused. According to Mr. West, it’s not the issue of absenteeism in Montgomery County, since he says no students in the early-elementary grades missed 20 days of school. He goes on to say that “the message for Montgomery County is, our kids are there in school; they just aren’t doing well.” According to Sparks’ blog post, report card grades proved to be the strongest predictor of dropout risk found in grades 1 and 3. West believes this is a the best place to start the conversation on becoming a drop-out, since the parent, student and teacher all have the report card.
That said, he doesn’t believe that identifying students will reduce dropout rates. Rather, it’s what districts, schools, administrators do with the information collected from early-warning systems. West says they are “not an intervention strategy; they are part of an intervention strategy. They are not a magic bullet.”
Sparks’ and West’s comments are a reminder to all of us that the work of intervening to get all children ready for school needs to happen long before 1st grade. With language-based early education and learning from birth to 3 that builds vocabulary, social-emotional and sensory processing skills, reading and mathematics failures, as well as many, if not most, severe disciplinary infractions, would be significantly reduced. In the end, students would stay in school long past the 6th grade, and, perhaps, even see themselves graduate from a vocational, para-professional or college program.