With So Many Kids Struggling in School, Experts Call for Revamping ‘Early Warning Systems’

When one student starts to fall behind, act up, and disengage from class, many schools now have early-warning systems in place to signal a problem and intervene. But what happens when half the class—or half the school—throws up similar red flags?

“If you just focus on the students who require intervention, you miss the forest for the trees,” said Carla Gay, the executive director for innovation and partnership, for the Gresham-Barlow School District, in Portland, Ore. “If you have a high percentage of students who are showing some sort of need for intervention, it’s more of an indicator of the health of the system.”

That problem confronts many educators and administrators after years of pandemic schooling disruptions. While school districts have adopted data systems to track and analyze student indicators at unprecedented rates in the past several years, the creators of those systems warn that the indicators and interventions developed before the pandemic may not be enough to get students back on track now.

“The pandemic has created greater needs for more kids, more dynamic and more diverse and more shifting needs,” said Robert Balfanz the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an early architect of early-warning systems for schools. “Sometimes, we got so enamored by the technology and [it’s] all about the best data system with the best bells and whistles … but we also have to make sure we’re really focused on those supportive mindsets, the human piece of that.”

Balfanz, research scientists from the Center for Social Organization of Schools and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, and six other research and education groups have launched a project to develop “next-generation” early-warning and intervention systems. The aim is to identify a broader set of academic and non-academic indicators for a broader set of students. While the first-generation systems looked at critical indicators for high school graduation, for instance, the 2.0 version might include key middle and high school transitions along the way to graduation as well as postsecondary success. The project also aims to guide districts in identifying broader, more systemic interventions when larger groups of students are at risk.

Pandemic pushes red flags beyond the ‘ABCs’

Academic early-warning systems evolved in large part from work at Johns Hopkins and the Chicago consortium. Balfanz and his colleagues identified what they termed the “ABCs” of student disengagement:

  • Absenteeism, particularly a student who chronically misses school, usually defined as 10 percent or more of the available school days.
  • Behavior problems, such as two or more detentions or in- or out-of-school suspensions; other
  • Course performance, such as grade failures and lack of credit completion.

More than a decade of research suggested that taken together, spikes in these three areas could identify students who were beginning to disengage from school. While most research focused on the use of early-warning indicators as middle school red flags, at least one statewide study in Maryland found the indicators predicted increased high school dropout risk as early as 1st grade.

For example, Balfanz pointed to a recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that while mental health problems among high school students increased during the pandemic, students who reported having at least one caring adult in school and at least one supportive peer had 50 percent fewer mental health problems than students who did not have those social supports .

“But the hard truth again was [that] only 47 percent of students reported having those connections and only a third of minority students did. So … we know there was a realm of human need and human power that was not necessarily captured by the first set of systems focusing really narrowly on preventing high school dropouts,” Balfanz said.

For example, Gay said her Oregon district has been working to add indicators of resilience and strength to its early-warning system, to help identify which protective supports students have and which students need them. The district has partnered with universities to identify indicators in academic and behavioral areas, but also social-emotional and basic welfare needs that are most predictive of postsecondary success at every grade from kindergarten through 12th.

While these systems have shown promise, they also can be a heavy lift for districts. “Everything from teacher voice and agency, the expectations of students and their feelings of safety, leadership from the administrative level—all those pieces are also important not only to implement early-warning systems, but seeing outcomes attached to that, too,” said Elizabeth Kirby, the superintendent of Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district.

Kirby said it is important for district administrators to bring teachers and administrators from different school levels together to discuss ways to address red flags across transitions, such as middle to high school.

In one Pennsylvania evaluation before the pandemic, early-warning systems significantly reduced both chronic absenteeism and course failures—both priorities for districts trying to help students recover lost academic ground now. But only two of the 37 schools in the study were able to implement the full model, and eight quit within a year. The biggest challenges? Staff turnover and the ongoing need to train teachers in how to understand and act on student data.

Gay said the pandemic has highlighted systemic inequities that can undermine schools’ intervention efforts with individual students. The district is working with partners to identify school practices and policies that can help students who struggle to make it to school because of transportation or other challenges.

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