College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

How Did Helping 9th Graders Improve Chicago’s Grad. Rates?

By Urban Education Contributor — July 24, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Elaine M. Allensworth (@E_Allensworth), Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research (@UChiConsortium).

The UChicago Consortium previously blogged about adopting school climate surveys under ESSA and using the 5Essentials framework to improve school climate.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

In the late 1990s, Chicago was a city where only one-half of students graduated high school in four years. Now, students are three times more likely to graduate than not graduate in four years. As more students are making it to the end of eleventh grade to take the ACT — increasing from 53 percent to 85 percent of students — ACT scores are up by almost two points. Additionally, the percentage of students completing AP courses has quadrupled. Twice as many students are earning bachelor’s degrees within 10 years of starting high school.

How did this happen?

Research had a lot to do with shaping the ways schools in Chicago — and across the country — think and go about helping students.

As little as fifteen years ago, many people thought high schools were unreformable and declared that efforts should focus primarily on early intervention. Research coming out at the time showed that graduating or dropping out was influenced by a multitude of factors over a student’s life course, including family, neighborhood, peers, elementary school experiences, health, and mobility, making high school dropout seem like an intractable problem. How could any high school hope to monitor all these factors that are external to school? Could any program possibly address them all? There was even less information on how to improve college outcomes.

Since then, however, four ideas coming out of research in the last 12 years transformed the ways schools support students.

#1 - The transition to high school is the most critical time for high school and college graduation. Graduation used to be thought of as something that happened at the end of high school. Research now shows that whether students graduate is largely set during their first year. This is a time of substantial change, when students suddenly have both more personal responsibility and less adult support. This is also when students develop their mindsets about whether or not they can be successful — and belong — in high school. Mindsets are incredibly powerful and persistent. If students succeed in ninth grade, they know they belong. If they fail, they will perpetually wonder if they will fail again. This is a time when schools can have outsized influence on whether students eventually succeed.

#2 - Who will graduate from high school or college depends on course performance. It turns out that students’ risk of not graduating can be accurately determined by their freshman course grades. Not only are freshman grades much better predictors than students’ backgrounds and test scores, but they are predictive at all types of schools, for all types of students. School professionals don’t need to know everything going on in students’ lives to know who needs support. They need to monitor how students are doing in their classes. If students are getting a D or F, they are at high risk of eventually not graduating from high school. If they aren’t getting Bs or better (at least a 3.0 GPA), they are not on track for college.

#3 - The primary driver of course failure and low grades is course absence, not weak skills. The prevailing wisdom behind early intervention as a strategy for addressing high school failure is that students enter high school without the necessary academic skills. That same wisdom suggests tutoring is the primary strategy for addressing failure. However, by far, the factor most strongly associated with ninth-grade failure and low grades is absence from class, and neither early intervention nor academic tutoring will have much effect if students are frequently absent.

#4 - Monitoring and support from adults can prevent failure. If adults in the school regularly monitor students’ grades and attendance, and find out why they’re missing class or not performing well, they can keep students on track for graduating high school and college. As adults develop strategies for reaching out and keeping students from falling behind, their own mindsets about students change. Instead of assuming students don’t care, they learn about the barriers that students face. Instead of seeing their job as sorting students by whether they meet expectations, they come to see their job as helping students to meet expectations. What starts out as looking at data can become the means for strengthening relationships between teachers and students.

Chicago high schools have rallied around the Freshman OnTrack metric and “Bs or Better” to organize their efforts to support ninth-grade students. As a result, they’ve shown that improving high school graduation is not an intractable problem. It is very doable. And it makes a huge difference in students’ lives.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.