George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Middle School's Role in Dropout Prevention

Credit: rdecom via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    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 percentageof dropouts among 16- to 24-year-olds declined from 12.1% to 7.4%. While there are still racial andsocioeconomic 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.

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    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.