Sometimes the data stares you in the face. A 6th grade student chooses to cut school too many times. Another 6th grader fails an ELA/Reading or Math class, while a third student gets a poor behavior report in a core subject area. Sadly, for each of these 6th grade students, their chances of dropping out or not graduating on time in high school just increased 75% (Balfanz, 2009). That’s right, research has shown that for schools with 80% or more subsidized lunch students, if a 6th grade student fails an ELA or Math class, OR misses 20 or more classes, OR gets a poor behavior report in a core subject class, his/her chances of dropping out in high school or not graduating on time increase to 75%!
In Frontline’s Middle School Moment, the story follows a 6th grade student Omarina Cabrera as she treads aimlessly along the pathway to graduation. As her home life spirals out of control, her attendance at school falls along with her grades, and she is surely destined to gain momentum down the slope to non-completion, i.e. high school dropout. The 11-year old (think about that for a second–11 years old) is lost in a sea of confusion, grappling with family issues too common in socio-economically deprived environments. Failing to see the critical juncture in her life, she disengages from school and proceeds to the likely path of high school dropout.
The data are there. Attendance is down, grades are falling, and teachers notice changes in the student’s disposition. She contributes less often to class discussions, fails to complete assignments, and so on. The data are there, and in this student’s case, the data are used to rescue the child from her descent. Under the leadership of Principal Dolores Peterson, Middle School 244 in the Bronx tracks scores of data of EVERY student on a weekly basis, looking for the markers that deem a child at-risk for failure. For students identified as at-risk, counselors assign interventions, monitor progress, and usually have a success story on their hands two years later. In Omarina’s case, rather than proceed further along the path to non-completion, the school’s interventions lead to a straight A, near perfect attendance record in 8th grade. Rather than having few options for high school, Omarina has been accepted to some of the city’s finest schools. Wow! The data were there all along. All it took was purposeful attention to middle school markers correlated with high school non-completion. Oh, and really strong building principal leadership.
We have reams of data on our students, yet if we are to be honest with ourselves, we neglect to look for the markers that point to high school non-completion, or we look at the data but fail to diligently implement and monitor the necessary action steps. We’re doing a pretty good job of rating teacher and principal performance, which is an important element to any effective institution. However, it is disconcerting we are not placing equal energies and monies towards monitoring our at-risk students and plucking them off the pathways to non-completion. In a time of stretched school budgets with the concomitant layoffs and program cuts, the likelihood of tracking such data and assigning staff to support the at-risk student is being compromised. That is a serious problem to our country’s well-being and one that needs to be addressed.
We have embarked on an exciting mission of raising the bar for literacy and math in this country, and the Common Core Shifts in instruction are a welcome change. However, we need to be certain children of all socioeconomic levels benefit from the reforms sweeping the nation, particularly our subsidized lunch students. Our country spends much less than other OECD countries on the education of poor children (“Learning for the Very Young: Little Steps,” 2013), and the gap in funding is especially problematic during the highly formative pre-school years (only on of every six four-year olds attends public pre-school in this country). That must change. Thanks to Balfanz’s research (2009), we know the markers for student dropouts and just how critically important the middle school years are to students’ academic success. If we hope to see more students graduate and contribute to a healthy, vibrant democratic society, then we must do more to rescue our children. We have the data, and we know the remedy. It’s a matter of prioritizing how we use data and funding the efforts that will save our non-completers. After all, failure is not an option.
Balfanz, Robert. (2009). Putting Middle Grade Students On The Graduation Path. Retrieved from http://www.amle.org/portals/0/pdf/research/research_from_the_field/policy_brief_balfanz.pdf.
Learning for the Very Young: Little Steps (February 9th-15th, 2013). The Economist, 62.