Education Opinion

Why Students Fall Off Track

By Contributing Blogger — June 15, 2015 6 min read
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This post is by Susan Fairchild, chief knowledge officer for New Visions for Public Schools.

Our aspirations for our children are tempered by two sobering realities: 1) every 26 seconds a teenager drops out of school in the United States; and, 2) “schools account for an average of less than 20 percent of a child’s waking hours ... .” I would argue that these facts do not exist in isolation; in fact, they are related. Since we’re unlikely to significantly increase the proportion of time students spend in the care of teachers and educators, we need to more effectively use the 20 percent of time we have available to us. This means intervening as early as possible with students who are at risk of dropping out.

The challenge: our current educational system is brilliantly designed to create off track students. Here’s why.

Presumably eighth graders who finish the school year “on track” will enter ninth grade with the mastery and skills that make them ready to tackle ninth grade coursework--the coursework that will get them ready for tenth grade. Think of the students who keep up and who do well in ninth grade as being on an escalator that takes them to the next level. And when they’ve mastered the ninth grade work, they are on track and ready for tenth grade work.

Figure 1. On Track Trajectory from 9th to 10th Grade

But some students who finished eighth grade on track and who enter ninth grade with strong skills might struggle throughout ninth grade, for various reasons. These students will enter tenth grade without having developed sufficient skills and will likely be classified as a grade level behind. As opposed to an escalator, their movement is more like being on a conveyor belt. They move forward to the next grade but without reaching the next level of mastery.

Figure 2. Off Track Trajectory from 9th to 10th Grade

To get back on track, these students will have to use tenth grade not only to catch up and revisit the ninth grade material, but also to master tenth grade material to be ready for eleventh grade. For these students, their escalator ride becomes much steeper.

Figure 3. Slope of Progress from Off Track to On Track Student from 10th to 11th Grade

There are many students who enter ninth grade far below grade level. For example, many students in New York City are homeless, in foster care, or incarcerated. These three groups of students are especially vulnerable. Dakota Cintron’s recent blog post highlights challenges these far-off-track students face and the high rates of dropout they will likely experience. For these groups of students and other far off track students, the distance they must travel and the effort they must exert into acquiring the skills necessary for tenth grade might look something like this:

Figure 4. Slope of Progress from FAR Off Track to On Track Student from 10th to 11th Grade

Supporting students who are off track is a typical scenario that many high school educators face. Systems Thinking can help us begin to understand the dynamics that created this situation and systems thinking can also help us to understand important high leverage places to intervene.

When problems are not addressed when they first arise, they often worsen. The Kicking The Can Down the Road scenario is a systems-thinking archetype that examines the impact of delayed decision making and ownership of a problem the moment that problem presents itself. Failure to adequately respond to problems when they occur transfers ownership of the problem to the next in line.

Kicking the Can is particularly insidious in educational systems. First, the natural direction of kicking the can is always forward: that is, problems that occur in elementary school (and left untreated) will follow students forward into high school (but not vice versa). In other words, delayed or ineffective interventions represent missed opportunities that accumulate over time. Brad Gunton, the director of data analytics at New Visions, has written an important blog on the consequences of missed opportunities; and, Mark Dunetz, the vice president of school support at New Visions, suggests that core school systems are one critical countermeasure to minimize or prevent missed opportunities from occurring in the first place.

Second, the nature of learning is cumulative. Learning in later years builds upon the fundamentals acquired in earlier years. A student who does not master addition and subtraction will not master division and multiplication. While educators certainly know this, they are not necessarily aware of the adjacent content standards that preceded their respective grade. David Wees, a formative assessment expert at New Visions, understands this and is mapping the learning progressions in geometry. A new blog post documents how David designs professional development activities so that high school geometry teachers are better prepared to identify students struggling with prerequisite skills and knowledge simply by increasing their awareness of learning progressions.

Third, the alignment of the teacher workforce further compounds this problem. A first grade teacher has a different skill set than an eighth grade teacher or a high school teacher. When a student moves forward in the system without achieving mastery in the previous grades, the teachers are less well equipped to treat the root cause of a learning gap. When a student arrives in 9th grade English class with only a fifth-grade reading level, it is a big problem that his teacher is a content expert and not a reading specialist in the same way an elementary teacher is. This places the high school teacher in an especially trying situation. The off-track student’s learning gaps that have been allowed to widen must now be closed within a short, four-year period of time if he or she is to graduate on time. In other words, what has been treated as a chronic problem must now be treated as an acute one.

The good news is that high-leverage interventions can accelerate closing the gap. For example, a high-leverage intervention that remediates the root cause of a student’s low literacy proficiency needs does not affect just one content area, but many. But the bad news is that too many high schools do not typically create programs and structures that support targeted intervention. For example, in addition to making teachers aware of learning progressions and equipping them with content strategies (as mentioned above), schools also need to create the space for the intervention itself. Many interventions require structural flexibility or different forms of resource allocation. Daniel Voloch, New Visions’ director of curriculum, blogs on the early promise of Transitions to Algebra, a year-long algebra support curriculum that runs concurrently with Algebra I, and the necessary programmatic restructuring that has to take place inside high schools to sustain this intervention.

Another off-track intervention, also highlighting the necessity of flexible school structures, is a ninth grade intervention taking place at The High School for Telecommunication Arts and Sciences (Telly). Michele Meredith, knowledge integrator at New Visions, documents an extensive, yet nimble system of early ninth-grade interventions that the educators at Telly have been implementing this past school year.

Off-track students are a product of an entire system, so it should be every teacher’s responsibility--from pre-K to high school--to make sure at-risk students are given the supports they need. And, no doubt, many already do. The larger educational system needs to find ways of supporting this perspective. Having data and communication structures that efficiently transfer granular data on student skills and needs from grade to grade will help. Rethinking traditional school structures and the alignment of teacher skill sets to student needs is another important approach.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.