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.

This study is one of the two

This study is one of the two best sources of practical wisdom on urban schools, along with The Wire. Remember, Balfanz is the real-life person that the pychologist in The Wire was based on.

I have just one quarrel with the report. He decribes the harm caused by absenteeism and says we should not suspend students for that. (I agree, with one disclaimer. If a student is coming to school but not going to class, and enough people do it, then they are endangering the educations of others and suspension for class cutting should be an option)

Balfanz says that after intervnetions on absenteeism are tried and failed, schools should consider more restrictive policies. I agree but that's awfully vague. Absenteeism is the toughest problem and it makes discipline, instruction, and all the other problems worse. The best solution I've found in Lynn Canady's "smart ass" statement that we must make students "fail faster." If students are hopelessly behind in October, place them in an alternative schedule with a contract and the option of returning to a regular schedule by a certain date when the contract is fulfilled.

I also loved Balfanz' metaphor describing instructional projects not unlike Merit Badges. I came to high schools through summer programs so I still think the group projects are the single best instructional tactic, even though politically they are virtually impossible in schools without disciplinery credibility. With middle school, though, I don't see how we can give up on projects. (although it seems like most of the tough schools have.) That's just one more reason why weh have to deal with chronically disruptive students so they don't completely rob their classmates of opportunities for respectful and engaging schools. That being said, I don't want to imply that I'm blaming troubled kids for the disruption. They are acting out their pain. We adults are the ones who must listen to Balfanz and then make tough choices.

Thanks, John-- First things

Thanks, John--

First things first: Is Balfanz REALLY the inspiration for a character on The Wire? Don't mess with me here--I'm very gullible.

I agree with you about Balfanz's take on absenteeism. On the one hand, it's difficult to punish students for absenteeism by essentially giving them more days off from school. On the other, students who cut class but remain a disruptive presence on school grounds can't be allowed to distract their peers from learning. This state of affairs underscores the difficulty of establishing effective discipline policies when schools aim to retain and continue engaging as many students as possible.

There are schools that offer encouraging models, however. What's your sense of the "new paternalism" model? Do some of those schools sacrifice retention while establishing order?

Yeah, that's my understanding

Yeah, that's my understanding from NPR interviews. I have a videotape of Balfanz on C Span, and following it I vidoetaped scenes from The Wire that are in schools. Anyone active in urban educational politics needs to watch or rewatch those scenes. My favorite is the scene where teachers are complaining about the additional (and worthless test prep) and the principal says, "The preferred term this year is 'curriculum alignment."

Balfanz and the actor in the Wire look similar and have a simliar demeanor.

At at the end of the year that preceded the middle school series there is a scene where Bunny the detective is trying to get order in the gym, and an assistant principal blesses the students down. I was struck by that scene because the assistant principal was just like our assistant principal and I've seen her do the same in the same way. That character was played by the real-life asst prinicpal at that school. She and Ed Burns (the author/cop turned teacher) used to argue all the time. Like my AP she'd yell and hug and do a great job but she opposed referring students to alternative schools. And of course the debates were racially tinged until Burns proved that he really cares about the kids. Then they often agreed while also disagreeing. My assitant principal have the same knock down drag out fights, we we know that both of us love the kids unreservedly.

I'm supportive of the "new paternalism" with a proviso. I don't want outsiders coming into my classroom with top down mandates, so I don't believe I should tell KIPP or HCZ or whatever how to run their business. I want us to concentrate on two things, doing whatever is necessary to teach reading comprehension and to teach kids how to be students. My preference for teaching self-assessment, self-control, and duty is through more progressive means. I also believe in the dictum "fake it until you can make it," which is a principle used by the new paternalists, but I'm most comfortable treating kids the way I want to be treated. I want my poor Black kids to get the same respectful mentoring that I got as a White Baby Boomer. But I think they could also use some of the intitiations that I got as a blue collar laborer and an outdoorsman. I'd like us to borrow from the military and the CCC, also. So, my long answer is that I prefer my liberal nurturing approach but I welcome more conservative approaches. The big thing, which Balafanz also asserts, is that poor kids want and need these challenges, but many poor kids can't do it without much more guidance by caring adults. And if we adults care, we need to show it by making realisitc decisions, not giving into political correctness. We need to care enough to say "no."

I also admit that I sometimes violate the cardinal liberal principal and sometimes yell. When I get to that point, I'll admit that I yell withj too much anger, unlike my AP who yells loud and often but without the same intensity. When i yell ...At any rate, I'm not proud of it but it works.

I meant to say, "my assistant

I meant to say, "my assistant principal and I have these knock down drag out fights"

Thanks for such a long and

Thanks for such a long and thoughtful reply. I really have to watch The Wire, which seems much more closely tied to urban schools than the typical Hollywood vision of urban schools.

And sorry for mis-spelling

And sorry for mis-spelling your name the other day.

No worries about the

No worries about the misspelling. A "K" at the beginning would have made much more sense....