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Montgomery County Looks for Even Earlier Early Warnings

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August 13, 2013 01:10 pm

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For years the Alliance for Excellent Education has been talking about the benefits of using early warning indicator systems to improve graduation rates. In fact, last year, Alliance President Bob Wise led a panel on how early warning indicator systems arebeing used successfully in high-performing middle schools.

A recent article in The Washington Postdescribes one school district that is taking early warning indicator systems and using them, well, even earlier. School officials in Montgomery County, Maryland examined data on students from the graduating classes of 2011 and 2012 and found that first graders with nine or more absences in a school year or below grade level in reading or math were twice as likely to drop out of high school.

As a result of the study, Montgomery County officials will now begin monitoring student attendance, behavior, and academic performance in the first grade to try to identify students who may be off-track. The program will begin in 10 schools who have requested additional help from the district.

Officials warn that this early warning system must not lead to the labeling of students that could, as the article notes, “push some adults to ignore certain children considered lost causes.” Montgomery County school superintendent Joshua P. Starr noted, “I don’t want to suggest that we’d be labeling kids or tracking kids or saying they’re destined for failure…It is an opportunity to understand the pattern so we can reverse the potential for [a student] to drop out. That is the power of predictive analytics.”

Two thoughts on early warning indicator systems.

First, at the middle and high school levels, students have more ownership of their education; their individual motivations, interests, and levels of persistence can be leveraged to re-engage them in their education if they get off-track. This is less true at the first grade level; if a student is off-track at this point, it seems that would likely be influenced by factors at home. Consequently, any early warning indicator system employed this early should have a mechanism to reach out to parents or guardians and engage them in a learning plan to get a student back on-track. For example, that engagement could look like something as simple as stressing the importance of reducing student absenteeism.

Second, it follows logically that districts and schools serving more students in traditionally at-risk groups (students of color and students in poverty) are going to have more students identified as off-track, if they have the resources to implement an early warning indicator system at all. Schools and classrooms in these districts may find it difficult to find the resources to create learning plans for all of these off-track students. However, as the Alliance’s economic data show, there are significant costs later to not best serving and educating students now. This underscores the need to continue to focus on the nation’s lowest-performing high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed them. These elementary schools, especially, may come into focus much clearer now as a result of Montgomery County’s efforts and early warning system.

Bill DeBaun is a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education. 

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