Missing from middle school

A few years ago, education researcher Robert Balfanz, A&S '84, began pinpointing indicators common to middle school students who eventually dropped out of school. Balfanz, co-director of Johns Hopkins' Everyone Graduates Center and research scientist at the university's Center for Social Organization of Schools, found something particularly striking: A sixth-grader in a high-poverty school who in a school year misses a month or more, or has sustained mild misbehavior issues, or is failing math or English, has just a 1-in-5 chance of graduating high school on time or a year late. That is, a student who appears to be mostly on track but has just one of these indicators already has an 80 percent chance of dropping out or falling behind. "That's sort of staggering," Balfanz says.

Further study of the problem has led him to conclude that all parents—not just the parents of truants—should be concerned if they notice chronic absenteeism in their child's middle school. In a recent report titled The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation's Public Schools, Balfanz likened absenteeism to bacteria in a hospital—something unseen that nevertheless can create havoc for those kids who are in class. When too many students miss two or more days of school per month, he says, everyone in the class may suffer because teachers will have to repeat old material when chronically absent children are present, slow the progress of the entire class to accommodate them, or face behavioral problems from truant kids when they come to class and find that everyone else has moved on and they're now behind.

Balfanz and his colleagues had spent time implementing "whole school reform"—research-based improvements to teaching, learning, and school climate—and found that it helped students a little but not a lot. So, armed with their discovery of the early warning indicators, they developed a complementary approach called Diplomas Now to help schools identify and assist kids headed for trouble, which will benefit all students, as the report indicates. The early indicators of trouble become a focal point for school staff to look closely at their students. "Once you know the indicators, you can organize adults' attention around them," Balfanz says. Too often, he says, intervention has meant lone adults scrambling to help as many kids as possible. Diplomas Now helps schools create teams that share a common set of students and meet regularly to follow their attendance, achievement, and behavioral data, and share whatever they know about the students' lives. A student might need "nagging and nurturing"—repeated nudges about coming to school or studying for a test. Others may need solutions to major life situations—medical issues, employment, or gang recruitment—that call for intensive case management. Teachers can't provide all this support alone, Balfanz says, so partners like AmeriCorps, City Year, Communities In Schools, and Good Shepherd Services can provide additional adults to help nag, nurture, and connect students with appropriate resources to support unmet out-of-school needs.

Collaboration and sharing of information can be crucial. Not long ago, Balfanz listened while a team of skeptical teachers discussed indicators in a large New York school that was part of his study. One student kept cutting his first-period class, and that class's teacher was taking it personally. But another faculty member who taught the same student later in the day explained that the boy was late to school because he had to take his father to chemotherapy appointments in the morning. Balfanz says the first teacher's point of view was transformed and she began working to help the student pass her class. "There's no magic in this field," Balfanz says, "but that felt pretty close."

Balfanz and his colleagues are in the second year of a four-year $36 million federal grant to test Diplomas Now in 32 schools in 11 districts, covering some 40,000 students. The initial data look promising, he says: Half of the students who were flagged for one of the warning indicators in the first quarter had lost that indicator by the end of the first year. But in the near term, too many students in too many schools still will be truants, and Balfanz advocates schools publishing data on chronically absent students, so that all parents can be alerted if the school has attendance problems. Only six states currently count the number of students who repeatedly miss school.