Education officials in tech-savvy Montgomery County have accumulated so much data on their students that they now say they can identify warning signs for high school dropouts as early as the second semester of first grade.
Montgomery may be the first, but they won’t be the last to come up with this kind of student profile. Twenty-eight states are developing such early warning systems and more are in the works, and for good reason. Around the country, the high school graduation rate hovers at 78.2 percent — but it is much lower for low-income kids (particularly males), African Americans and Latinos. By comparison, Montgomery is doing pretty well — the graduation rate hovers at around 93 percent. But still, that means 7 percent of kids there are leaving school for an uncertain future.
The report, though, turns out to be yet another example of Big Data showing us pretty much what we already know. Kids who are absent more than 10 percent of the school year, it will surprise no one, often fail to thrive in school. In Montgomery County, missing as few as nine days of elementary school doubled a student’s risk of dropping out later. Nationally, kids who are suspended for behavioral issues or aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are at risk of dropping out.
The new data system in Montgomery indicates that kids who are reading or doing math below grade level in first grade are considered at risk. Elementary school kids in Montgomery who don’t do their homework have a higher risk factor as well (which is odd, considering that research has not established a clear link between completed homework assignments in the early years and mastery of the curriculum … but never mind.)
And once I got over my aversion to looking at a child who can barely ride a two-wheeler and making such huge assumptions about their future, I had a few questions: Now that we’ve invested taxpayer money in such systems, what are we doing to get those kids we’ve identified and flagged as “at risk” back on track?
Because it is easy to forget in this age of accountability that detailing the size, nature and early warning signs of a problem is only the very first step — and a very small one at that — in solving it. And I’m hoping that the river of money behind school data systems soon begins to flow toward effective interventions as well.
My guess is that programs that keep vulnerable kids in school won’t depend on an algorithm. They won’t boil down the complicated, sprawling process of education into a single number. Instead, what will keep “at risk” kids on track to graduate from high school will combine high-quality teaching — complete with plenty of backfilling of foundational skills — in an environment that encourages what social workers call “high touch connections” between vulnerable students and their mentors, advisers, counselors and coaches.
If the data system in Montgomery County — and the other ones coming on line around the nation — creates pressure to deepen our investment in those kinds of programs, that will be money well spent.