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New Study Shows Promise for Reducing Early Warning Indicators

An independent evaluation of the Diplomas Now model shows that its approach can help middle school students increase their odds of graduating high school on time by reducing their number of early warning indicators.

Say you have a sixth-grader who misses too much school, has problems with behavior, and struggles to keep grades up. What do you do?

New research suggests you find a school that works with Diplomas Now, a program that increases support for students exhibiting these early warning signs of trouble down the road. By helping students improve their attendance, behavior and grades in middle school, research shows they stand a significantly better chance of graduating high school on time.

In a new report, Addressing Early Warning Indicators: Interim Impact Findings from the Investing in Innovation (i3) Evaluation of Diplomas Now, the research firm MDRC found that the Diplomas Now model’s interventions succeeded by reducing the percentage of students with early warning signs.

Perhaps more importantly, the study found that this kind of progress is possible consistently, across multiple districts, even in the nation’s highest poverty middle and high schools.

Three early warning indicators: A - poor attendance | B - disruptive behavior | C - Course failure in math and English

Photo credit: City Year.

The Diplomas Now Approach

When researcher Bob Balfanz and his colleagues first discovered the predictive power of early warning indicators, Balfanz says it was a “eureka moment” in education. If a sixth or ninth grader exhibits even one early warning sign, like poor attendance records, his or her odds of graduating high school fall to just 25 percent.

On the other hand, preventing students from struggling with discipline, attendance or grades can improve their odds of graduating by 50 percent.

To better support struggling students, Balfanz co-founded Diplomas Now. The organization – a partnership among the Talent Development Secondary school improvement model from Johns Hopkins UniversityCity Year, and Communities In Schools – received support from the US. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund.

Here are the CliffsNotes on how the Diplomas Now early warning indicator system works: The Talent Development intervention team trains teachers to monitor students' attendance, discipline rates and grades. Once they identify high-risk students, the team works with City Year and Communities In Schools to pair students with everything from one-on-one mentors to counseling or housing services, depending on the student’s needs. (For a closer look at the model, check out this article from Education Week and this Diplomas Now FAQ.)

It’s a whole-school approach that focuses on increasing the number of caring adults young people can turn to for support. And as MDRC found, it’s having an impact, particularly on reducing chronic absenteeism. 

A major new study shows that Diplomas Now increases the percentage of sixth- and ninth-graders with no early-warning signs.

Infograhpic from Diplomas Now website.

Initial Findings: Less Chronic Absence, More Caring Adults

MDRC’s evaluation of the model studied 11 major urban districts, 62 middle and high schools, and more than 40,000 students—the most expansive randomized control trial ever done in secondary education in the United States. The early results from MDRC are from one year of implementation.

Perhaps most notably, the study found that the model has reduced chronic absenteeism in the sixth grade by 17 percent, a particularly promising finding for students in high-poverty schools. Even if students growing up in poverty get good grades in elementary school, Diplomas Now says, they are more likely to become chronically absent in middle school. By keeping them in school, the model is keeping them on track to graduate.

MDRC also found that:

  • Compared to students from other schools, students who got support from Diplomas Now were more likely to say they had a positive relationship with an adult at school who wasn’t a teacher.
  • Students at Diplomas Now schools reported being more involved in afterschool activities that focused on academics.
  • At this stage in implementation, Diplomas Now has a more promising impact on middle school students than on ninth-graders. In high schools, the program appears to be more effective at keeping students on track to graduate then getting off-track students on a more positive path.
  • Some schools that don’t use the Diplomas Now model get similar results.

For a deeper look at the study and the impact of early warning systems, check out these stories from the Washington Post and Education Week.

Recommendations Moving Forward

Addressing Early Warning Indicators Report CoverTo have more impact, MDRC recommends that Diplomas Now focus on reducing the number of suspensions in schools (a known risk factor for dropping out) and enhance the model’s approach to meet the size and intensity of students’ needs in large, high-poverty high schools.

The Diplomas Now team has already worked with many of its schools to implement a restorative approach to student discipline, the impact of which will be examined in future studies.   

Overall, Balfanz believes this study proves why the field of education needs to invest in more research and evidence-based approaches.

“We know which schools will produce the next generation of dropouts,” Balfanz writes in a reflection of the study on Medium. “We know which students in these schools won’t make it without effective interventions. And we now have evidence that we know how to help them.”

For the full report and helpful summaries, visit Addressing Early Warning Indicators: Interim Impact Findings from the Investing in Innovation. 

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to improve them, join the GradNation Learning Community. Just send an email to Eboni-Rose Thompson with your name, email address and organizational affiliation.

To learn more about state-level work to increase graduation rates, check out the GradNation State Activation initiative, a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson, focused on increasing high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.