Moving from “Early Warning” to “Constant Awareness”

Every student who walks into high school as a new ninth grader can graduate.

Some students enter with the wind at their back: a strong middle school experience, a supportive social structure and an expectation of graduation. For these students, the question is not whether they graduate, but what type of diploma will they receive and where will they go to college. Many others, however, are not yet ready for high school work and struggle to stay on track.

Setting a four-year goal of graduation and college readiness for all of our students is fine, but it is not enough. What is the goal for our students not just four years from now, but today? Maybe it depends on their recent attendance, or their most recent formative assessment taken in the "Data-Driven Classroom", or their first marking period grade. Or their science lab participation, or their FAFSA completion status, or their participation in an after-school program focused on academic tenacity.

While those interested only in accountability may collapse the four years of high school into a handful of high-stakes tests, the fact is that every day is a test, an opportunity, for schools to help students edge a bit closer to the top of their potential.

These opportunities can be seized, or they can be missed. Either way, a student’s range of potential high school outcomes narrows over time. For example, in the diagram below – when a student first cuts class, what is the school’s response? Does the cut trigger an attendance outreach and intervention system, or is it allowed to evolve into a bigger attendance problem? 

The best schools are those that constantly push students towards the top of their potential, helping them zero in on the best possible outcome. Doing so, however, requires going further than identifying a group of students using early-warning indicators and periodically checking in on them. It requires changing the mindset of counselors, principals, and everyone who works with schools from early warning to constant awareness, where every student is on the radar and is constantly being pushed to achieve.

To do that, schools must recognize the opportunities for student growth as they arise, and they must create new opportunities as well – they must become high-performing organizations.  Two of the schools in our network – New Dorp High School and the High School for Telecommunication Arts & Technology, where Assistant Principal Jeanine Boulay says “the school is alive and we are awake” – have internalized this approach and are implementing it throughout their school.

Such schools recognize that every interaction between a student and teacher or school leader contains the seeds of opportunity.  High-performing schools do not dismiss negative behaviors like cutting class or truancy as unavoidable or impossible to remediate. If a student cuts class, there is an immediate opportunity for a school to intervene. They can reach out to the student’s parents and have a counselor or attendance teacher speak with him. If the school examined students’ previous attendance patterns in other schools, they don’t even need to wait for the first cut to address the issue before it becomes a problem. These then become the students who move from "Quadrant C" up to "Quadrant A" in my colleague Susan Fairchild’s framework of student progress.

Importantly though, that opportunity will disappear just as quickly as it arose. If a data system is not in place to immediately send the relevant information to the people who can act on it, and if a human system is not in place that instructs people what to do with the data, we’ll simply create after-the-fact reports that may describe cutting patterns in our schools but do nothing to change them.

Setting Individual, Evidence-Based Goals

The critical component of helping students seize these opportunities is that the opportunities are student-specific. While I said at the start that every new ninth grader can graduate, we know that our students enter high school with widely varying skill sets and experiences. Setting the same goals for everyone is essentially setting some students up to fail and others to underperform.

For example, a school might set for its students the goal of passing all three Regents exams in mathematics: Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry. But we see in our data analysis that students who fail algebra freshmen year are very unlikely to eventually pass the Trigonometry Regents. That by itself doesn’t mean the school should abandon its goal. But if school leaders want to accomplish something extraordinary, they had better be prepared to go to extraordinary measures, and they had better know what has been done unsuccessfully in the past so as not to repeat those failures.

At some point, for some students, on-time graduation is not feasible. There are only so many credits that can be earned at one time, and if too many opportunities have slipped away, the top of a student’s potential range of outcomes may no longer include on-time graduation. But this is just another opportunity, to reset goals and expectations that are both ambitious and realistic, given where the student is at that point in time.

This is the mindset that moves us from early warning to constant awareness. A student’s history cannot be summed up exclusively from an eighth grade attendance rate, or a sixth grade course failure, or a seventh grade suspension; if you don’t take into account that this morning, she turned in an assignment on time for the first time this semester, you are missing the data-based opportunities present in a school that educators can use to learn about their students and build on their successes.

The goal of this mindset is not simply avoiding an ultimate negative outcome such as dropping out. The goal is to work together to constantly push our students to the best possible positive outcome and to see each success as a stepping stone towards something bigger. And when we reach this goal, more of those students walking into high school for the first time this September can expect to walk at graduation with their peers four years later.

Brad Gunton is deputy director of data analysis and applied research at New Visions for Public Schools.


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