Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Slipping from the Path to Graduation

vonzastrowc's picture

A new and important study of the link between middle school success and high school graduation rates offers a useful caution to anyone looking for education miracle cures. After examining early warning signs that students might drop out, study author Bob Balfanz writes:

These findings...demonstrate why reform is difficult, as no single reform stands out as the major action required. Essentially, we found that everything one might think matters, does so, but modestly at best. This included parental involvement, academic press, teacher support, and the perceived relevance of what was being taught and its intrinsic interest to students. Some of these factors influenced attendance, others influenced behavior or effort, and they either indirectly or directly impacted course performance, achievement gains, and graduation outcomes. It was only when all the elements were combined in a well-functioning system that major gains were observed.

So don't put all your reform eggs in one basket--a useful admonition for education policy's chattering classes. The flip side of that admonition, of course, is that we shouldn't ignore critical improvement strategies either. Parent involvement, academic expectations, teacher support, relevance and other factors are all important to school success. As the nation considers school turnaround strategies, we should accept that successful strategies may well have many moving parts.

The study also offers real cause for optimism. If schools and communities are attentive, Balfanz argues, they can identify sixth-graders at high risk of becoming high school dropouts, and they have years to intervene before those students are irrevocably lost. Balfanz sketches out some components of effective early warning systems and makes a strong case for "collaboration among states, districts, and schools to design, implement, and staff multitiered intervention systems."

It doesn't much help, however, that middle schools are the forgotten middle child in education reform discussions. Balfanz's work should help get them back on policymakers' radar.

The study contains some other very interesting nuggets. Among them:

  • "Similar schools serving similar student populations had different percentages of students" who showed signs that they might drop out in high school. Middle schools can therefore have a powerful influence on student persistence down the road.
  • Middle school "students who come [to school] every day, behave, and get good grades graduate [from high school] in high numbers."
  • Course grades, which seldom get any respect in policy circles, are better predictors of later persistence in school than test scores are.
  • Middle school electives, like debate or drama, can help struggling students stay on track.

There's much more to the study than I can relate here. It's worth your time.

The study was co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins' Everyone Graduates Center, the Philadelphia Education Fund, and the National Middle School Association.