George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Middle School's Role in Dropout Prevention

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Our nation is on the right track when it comes to high school graduation. The graduation rate is the highest it has ever been (75.5% for the class of 2009), and between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of dropouts among 16- to 24-year-olds declined from 12.1% to 7.4%. While there are still racial and socioeconomic gaps in these areas, improvement is happening across the board.

But we have to do better. In addition to what we know about the personal and societal benefits to high school graduation (higher wage for individuals and lower crime rates for communities among them), as we look towards our nation's economic future, it is projected that in 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education. Just 10 percent of jobs will be available to high school dropouts (compared to 32% in 1973). At our current rate of improvement, the nation's graduation rate will be closer to 80 percent than 90 percent in 2020, two years after 90 percent of jobs will require high school graduation.

A Difficult Task

Dropout prevention on a wide scale is extremely difficult. Students drop out at different points in the education continuum and for a variety of reasons, which means that there is no single action that schools, parents or communities can take to prevent high school dropouts.

But we are beginning to learn the warning signs of dropping out -- and they are evident well before a student starts high school. as early as first grade, teacher ratings of student academic and social performance are associated with graduation. Students who are not reading on grade level by third grade are less likely to graduate than their peers. And sixth-graders likelihood of graduation can be determined by the ABCs:

  • Attending school less than 80 percent of the time
  • Receiving an unsatisfactory Behavior grade/demonstrating mild but sustained misbehavior, or
  • Course failure (particularly in math or English/reading)
    • Students demonstrating at least one of these traits have only a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of graduating on time. Less than one of every four students graduates within one extra year of on-time graduation.

      So in considering strategies to improve our nation's graduation rate, we ultimately must aim to develop strong early childhood programs so that students enter school ready to learn and strong schools that ensure no students fall through the cracks. And while we are doing that, target resources for dropout prevention at middle school that we should target resources for dropout prevention at middle school for students who show signs of poor behavior and disengagement, but who are not yet failing academic subjects.

      What Can Middle Schools Do?

      Dr. Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, is one of the nation's leading experts on high school dropouts. And he suggests that by addressing the ABCs (Attendance, Behavior, and Course performance), schools serving middle grades students can identify those at-risk of dropping out and help put them on the path to graduation. In Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path, Balfanz recommends specific actions that a school can take around these indicators, including:

      • Recognizing good attendance regularly through public acknowledgement and social reward
      • Separating attendance from course performance (rather than lowering grades if students miss a certain number of days, structuring a way for students to make up assignments)
      • Providing high engagement activities that provide avenues for short-term success and positively recognize asymmetrical skills levels
      • Getting "extra help" (such as after-school tutoring) right, focusing on what is needed for immediate success rather than exclusively on building general skills
      • Acknowledging that course grades are more predictive of eventual success than test scores (and so focusing academic improvement efforts on raising course performance, not improving standardized test scores)

      Early Warning and Intervention Systems

      Balfanz also encourages schools to develop early warning and intervention systems based on the ABCs. While most schools already track student behavior and academic performance, it is important for them to look not only at numbers, but trends. As students start on a downward cycle, dropping from a "B" to a "C" or getting their first behavioral referral, the school needs to respond.

      And student-level data on one key predictor of dropping out -- attendance -- might not be as easily accessible as behavior or academic data. Instead of simply tracking average daily attendance, schools should track individual student attendance to identify those who are moderately, chronically, or extremely chronically absent.

      Of course, Balfanz makes clear that schools' efforts should focus on intervention, not just identification. He believes that each system should include whole-school prevention strategies, targeted supports for students who need more, and intensive supports for those who need even more. He also recommends that these intervention systems:

      • Recognize and build on student strengths
      • Provide time, training and support to teachers for implementation
      • Match resources to student needs but practice intervention discipline, reserving resource-intense interventions (such as one-on-one or small-group support) for those students for whom nothing else works (even when most students would benefit)
      • Evaluate the effectiveness of individual interventions, not just the overall notion of intervening

      The impact of these systems on individual students and the school as a whole can be profound. You can see one in action on Middle School Moment, part of FRONTLINE's Dropout Nation, a community engagement campaign. Middle School Moment highlights Balfanz's research, showing how Middle School 244 in the Bronx has used it to detect students at risk and intervene to keep them on the path to graduation. FRONTLINE is offering free DVDs of the segment, accompanied by a discussion guide, to schools and community groups to host a screening and encourage dialogue on ending the dropout crisis. (Disclaimer: I wrote the discussion guide).

      The importance of the middle grades in dropout prevention efforts is hard to overstate. While historically these efforts have been concentrated at the high school level, it is time we expand them to ensure that students in the middle grades have the resources and supports they need to stay on the track to success.

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Ryan Birch Birch's picture

I agree that dropout prevention starts early. However, I disagree with singling out specific grades or areas or bringing attention to specific grades or areas. This just leads to finger pointing or the "not in my backyard" mentality. As an educator, dropout prevention is something that should be addressed at your grade level and in your subject area regardless of grade level or subject area. It is an issue that needs to be dealt with in the "here and now". Unfortunately, in high schools, a mentality creeps in that by the time the students is in high school it is too late to do anything. On the other side, middle school teachers have a tendency to adopt a "its a high school problem" attitude. This mentality also invades our elementary schools. IT IS NEVER TOO LATE OR TOO EARLY!

Mike Herring's picture
Mike Herring
Instructional Effectiveness Specialist/Chicago Public Schools

As a former HS English teacher in a school that had far too many dropouts, I recognize many of the strategies listed above and encourage administrators to think along these lines. I have one additional strategy to suggest that fits well with the focus on ABC's listed above. It's CRITICAL that students have access to up to date information about their grades. It's also critical that they are encouraged to access and reflect on their grades on a regular basis.

There is a big shift in the consequences for failing a class between 8th and 9th grade. 9th grade is often the first time that earning an F on a report card means taking the class over again. Students customarily pass through middle school from one grade to the next unless there are serious issues manifested by multiple failing grades. Then, in 9th grade, rather surprisingly for some students, an F means having to re-take an entire semester's school work. I wish I could tell you the number of 9th (or more disturbingly, 10th) graders I've known who weren't aware that the difference between a 70% and a 69% at the end of the semester is so dramatic. Typically the opportunities to make up that credit either cause the student to fall further behind or take place during the summer. I have known many students who didn't understand this transition and finished their first semester of high school missing 2-3-4 credits.

The strategy I suggest to address this is to ensure that students have access to a web-based system where they can check their grades on a regular basis. I have worked with School Loop and Power School and recommend both. Parents should also be able to check grades and, in low-income communities, should be trained at the school to learn the system. Concurrently, teachers must pledge to keep an updated grade book and to promptly respond to student/parent inquiries to get assignments fixed.

There are profound conversations to be had with 8th and 9th graders as they are determining what kind of a persona they'll carry through high school. In an increasingly wired society where students spend so much time on cell phones, schools need to encourage students to use those cell phones to check up on their grades. I used to tell my students that every time they check Facebook, they should also check their grades. Effective implementation of data systems like School Loop that allow students to have accurate academic information is a critical strategy that makes a concrete difference in reducing student failure rates.

Damian's picture
Regent University

While drop-out prevention rates start as early as first grade......I agree that there are some measures that may be taken to address this issue. The ABC's (Attendance, Behavior, and Course Performance) are key elements regarding red flags. I am pleased to know that regardless of socioeconomic gaps, high school drop out rates are in decline! Let's keep up the good work. Great article to promote awareness in dropout prevention.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

As a middle school teacher, I have no trouble with suggestions for how we can help prevent students from dropping out of high school. After all, if our goal (from K - college) is that our students be life-long learners, then isn't it every teacher's responsibility to help their students view themselves as active learners, all the way through to adulthood? It's not easy, of course, and so many of our students face great challenges to this goal, but there's no reason for us to pass the responsibility on to other grade levels. One way that I try to keep my students on the path to graduation is to devote a great deal of class time to pleasure reading. I tell them over and over that the best way to build their school skills is to read books that they want to read, and I back that up by giving them class time for pleasure reading, sharing good books with them every day, and stocking my classroom library with the best books I can find. Many students tell me that they rediscover a love of reading because of my class. In June, I beg them to keep carrying a good book with them, wherever they go, so they can keep on reading.

Addison Hess's picture

Personally, I believe that the dropouts can not be put into something as simple as ABC. A child can hide, in fear, in pain, in high hopes that someone will see their pain, but when they finally get the opportunity, they fake it. Today's society is one of the main impacts of high school dropping out, though ABC can contribute to it at least half of the time. The cool factor and worrying of being a nerd, that's sometimes the thing. Have you seen the internet? They worry that they will be that child saying "21." All children deserve support to know that someone will be there so they know school can be simple once you try and not just give up... we need to teach children that giving up isn't the answer. Teachers say it like it's easy; imagine being a teenager again. All the things you've learned as an adult doesn't exist and you're being bullied and threatened and followed. You're afraid to speak so you hide in the shadows. That's how a teenage/child brain works. Easy to say, but hard to do.

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