In efforts to keep kids on track to graduate, a new evaluation of the Diplomas Now intervention suggests an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.
After a single year of implementation through the federal Investing in Innovation program, MDRC researchers found Diplomas Now significantly boosted the number of 6th graders who showed none of the early red flags for dropping out of high school: shaky attendance, poor grades, or behavior problems. It likewise provided support to students who entered 9th grade vulnerable but on track—but the program had less success in pulling freshmen back on track if they had had years of problems in middle school.
“Even kids that come in on track can get off track, and Diplomas Now positions itself at that first slip— to catch them quick to make sure they don’t fall more off track,” said William Corrin, MDRC deputy director and lead investigator for the Diplomas Now evaluation.
Diplomas Now’s Talent Development intervention trains teachers to do intensive monitoring of students’ core grades, attendance, and discipline rates, while pairing high-risk students with one-on-one mentors and other supports through City Year and Communities in Schools.
That proved important in the transition from 5th to 6th grades. About a third of students who had good reading and math performance in 5th grade had, by the end of 6th grade, lower grades, started to act out in class, or started to miss school. In control-group schools this took longer to spot: In Diplomas Now schools, only 1 in 4 students, rather than 1 in 3, started to go off track in 6th grade.
After a year of implementing the program, 75 percent of 6th graders in participating schools had no warning signs, while only 68 percent of their peers in comparison schools were completely on track.
“That’s the main grade of transition: Often your relationship at home is changing. It’s when girls start being caregivers for younger siblings, when gangs start recruiting young boys,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the John Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center, which developed Diplomas Now out of Balfanz’s research on early warning signs. “One of the things we had to learn was, we have to do more preventative work. Kids who were doing great would fall apart in the fourth quarter. Schools’ attention wanes, students’ attention wanes.”
Catching students early was crucial. In high school, students who entered Diplomas Now schools on track in 9th grade were more likely than students at nonparticipating schools to still be on track at the end of the year. But there was no improvement for the two-thirds of entering freshman who had poor grades or other warning signs in 8th grade.
Corrin isn’t sure why the program hasn’t helped catch up high schoolers who are already behind. “The lift for those kids just may be higher. Does it just take more time to get them on track, or is it just that their level of need is so great that even with the intensity of service Diplomas Now provides the match still isn’t quite right? It’s an interesting place to think about what early warning indicators mean and how we use them.”
“This is just the first year of a multiyear intervention,” Balfanz said. “In poverty, [students’] lives are always fragile and even if you make gains, they can be very tenuous.”
MDRC will continue its evaluation through 2017-18, when it will study how well the program improved at-risk students’ long term graduation rates.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.