An Early Warning System Keeps Middle School Students on Track to College and Career

Middle school might seem far away from college and career, but the 5th through 8th grade years build a foundation for the rest of life. By looking at middle schoolers holistically — not only their academic performance, but also their social and emotional development — educators and parents can keep children on track for promising futures.

FHI 360 coaches schools on how to use what Bob Balfanz and others call early warning systems to identify how middle grade students are doing overall. The FHI 360 system asks teachers, counselors and administrators to track four data points: lapses in students’ attendance, low-level behavior infractions, poor grades in math or English, and signs that students are just not engaged in school. Any one of these can signal that a student is starting to struggle — either academically or with something outside of school that affects classroom performance. More than one sign or a downward trend should make the alarms wail even louder.

Veteran teachers and school officials are probably tuned in to these signs of difficulty already. What’s new is juxtaposing all these data points. For instance, under No Child Left Behind, student performance was viewed largely as a single line of academic achievement: did this child pass or fail a test or class?

Instead, we’re advocating for a data-driven but holistic approach that reflects students’ performance in the context of their lives and school setting. We’re also giving staff a way to respond effectively and to hold themselves accountable for making sure that students get the help and attention they need. Monitoring students more closely in middle school can help teachers and counselors react earlier and, in any cases, intervene before students slip too far behind.

In New York City, the Department of Education is trying to reduce its drop-out rate. We applaud these efforts. But New York’s drop-out rate is only the end result of many years’ of sliding attendance, behavior, grades, and engagement. Instead of a summative assessment, we believe that tracking these four indicators and then using every option to help students turn things around and succeed is one of the best and most effective way of improving high school graduation, as well as career and college readiness.

Moreover, the early warning system is an integral part of a more comprehensive instructional reform framework. It not only aids individual students, but also informs and influences a broader scope of work. For instance, the early warning system provides data that can help a principal or a community make decisions about school organization, schedule, policies and capacity-building needs.

It also helps educators make better decisions about tiered supports and interventions — including appropriate and targeted professional development, teacher teaming and leadership evolution. These continual improvements build a foundation to support school policies, a healthier school culture and improved school-wide behavior. These improvements also help implement national initiatives like the Common Core, teacher effectives, common assessments, and rigorous and relevant literacy.

This was brilliantly illustrated in a recent piece on “PBS Frontline,” which profiled a young girl struggling to stay in middle school. FHI 360 has been working closely with the school in the piece, Middle School 244 in the Bronx, to help them create student aids and interventions that are driven by data.

By using the early warning system as the foundation of a larger systemic reform, schools will focus on safety and engagement, taking action against adversity and creating close student–adult relationships so kids are ready to learn.
At the same time, teachers will have a shared responsibility for achievement and will be a part of a professional teaching culture so they are ready to teach.

Lastly, administrators who use early warning system data will have greater resource authority by making data-driven decisions. They will create more resource ingenuity by applying their resource authority in more creative ways. And, administrators will create more agility to respond to an instructional climate in continual movement and unrest.

The end result of the early warning system is the creation of both classrooms and schools that are organized to improve student achievement.

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