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What Does it Take to Put All Students on the Graduation Path?. California League of Schools K-12 Annual Conference-South Robert Balfanz Everyone Graduates Center School of Education Johns Hopkins University.

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what does it take to put all students on the graduation path

What Does it Take to Put All Students on the Graduation Path?

California League of Schools

K-12 Annual Conference-South

Robert Balfanz

Everyone Graduates Center

School of Education

Johns Hopkins University

We are at the start of what promises and needs to be a transformational decade in American Public Education
  • Common college and career ready standards
  • Next generation assessments
  • Individual level longitudinal data
  • Smart integration of technology
  • Advancements in Teacher Quality
  • Holds promise of revolutionary improvements
but millions of students are still attending high poverty schools where
But millions of students are still attending high-poverty schools where
  • Achievement gaps become achievement chasms
  • High school graduation is not the norm
  • Few high school graduates complete college
this can not continue
This Can Not Continue
  • There is no work for young adults without a high school degree
  • And no work to support a family without some post-secondary schooling or training
  • As a result entire communities are being cut off from participation in American society and a shot at the American Dream
If learning is inherently joyful and exciting, and students want to succeed, why do we have these outcomes?
Because by and large the schools they attend are not designed or organized to meet the educational challenges they face
three hypotheses on why
Three Hypotheses on Why
  • We underestimate the degree or nature of these schools’ educational challenge
  • We do not design schools attuned to the developmental needs of students in general and students who live in poverty in particular
  • We do not integrate efforts to make attending school worthwhile with efforts to make schools places where students and teachers want to be and want to work hard
this needs to inform our approach to putting all students on the graduation path
This Needs to inform our Approach to Putting All Students on the Graduation Path
  • Need to design schools that can meet the educational challenge they face
  • Need to organize the day to day operations of the school so they propels students to attend, behave, and try and enable the adults in the school to believe that the challenge of preparing all students for college and career is doable
  • Need to build students and school staff’s capacity to persevere, adapt and collaborate

The 9th grades in the nation’s lowest performing high schools are filled with students both lacking a good middle grades education and who have learned in the middle grades that schooling as they experience it might not be for them.


Student’s Middle Grades Experience and in Particular the Extent to which they are able to regularly attend school, behave, learn to try hard, and do well in their courses (the ABC’s of Post-Secondary Success) greatly shapes their educational trajectories, particularly in high poverty environments.

future dropouts can be readily identified in significant numbers as early as 6 th grade
Future Dropouts can be readily identified in significant numbers as early as 6th grade

The Primary Off-Track Indicators for Potential Dropouts:

  • Attendance - <85-90% school attendance
  • Behavior - “unsatisfactory” behavior mark in at least one class
  • Course Performance – A final grade of “F” in Math and/or English or Credit-Bearing HS Course

Sixth-grade students with one or more of the indicators may have only a 15% to 25% chance of graduating from high school on time or within one year of expected graduation

Note: Early Warning Indicator graph from Philadelphia research which has been replicated in 10 cities.

Robert Balfanz and Liza Herzog, Johns Hopkins University; Philadelphia Education Fund

In High Poverty School Districts, 75% or More of Eventual Dropouts Can be Identified between the 6th and 9th Grade
major finding
Major Finding
  • Students in high-poverty schools who successfully navigate grades 6 to 10 on time and on track, by and large, graduate from high school (75% or higher grad rates)
  • Students in high-poverty schools who struggle and become disengaged in the early secondary grades and in particular have an unsuccessful 6th- and/or 9th- grade transition do not graduate (25% or less grad rates)
post secondary success appears to be strongly related to a strong 9 th grade year
Post-Secondary Success Appears to be Strongly Related to a Strong 9th Grade Year
  • Sneak Peak-from Forthcoming Report on Post-Secondary Success Indicators with Alliance for Excellent Education
  • “In a major state to have a 75% chance of post-secondary attainment - 9th graders needed to attend 95% of the time, have a B average, no course failures, no behavioral incidents, and be on age for grade. Only 20% of the cohort reached these milestones”
  • Like others our research has found that high impact teachers play the biggest role in enabling achievement gains.
  • But we also found that attendance, behavior, and effort have independent and additive impacts.
  • In every school we found some students making substantial achievement gains-(they managed to get a good teacher two years in row and came everyday, behaved and tried). What determined overall school achievement levels was the percent of students achieving these conditions. In many schools this percent was very low.
key finding effective instruction plus student engagement achievement gains
Key Finding-Effective instruction PLUS student engagement = achievement gains

In three representative high-poverty middle schools, 77% of the students who attended 95% of the time, got excellent behavior grades, had above average effort levels during 6th, 7th and 8th grades, and strong teachers for 2 of the 3 years made large achievement gains in math

Less then 20% of students in the sample of three high-poverty middle schools, however, had high attendance, excellent behavior, and high effort levels throughout grades 6-8, and strong teachers in two of the three years

we want to believe the good instruction produces student engagement
We Want to Believe The Good Instruction Produces Student Engagement
  • And it does. But our research also indicates that in high poverty environments in the middle grades it is not enough.
  • Students are going through multiple transitions with peers, family, and schools all of these are heightened by living in a high poverty neighborhood
  • Via-increased caregiver responsibilities, active gang recruitment, new neighborhoods to travel through to get to school, larger and often much more chaotic schools
As a result, Middle Grade Students in high poverty schools begin to disengage from school in large numbers and at an accelerating rate.
  • Some stop attending school regularly – flight
  • Some start acting out and being disruptive in class – fight
  • Some just stop trying and start failing courses – withdrawal
The cost of inaction is high School disengagement, precedes involvement with the juvenile justice system and teenage pregnancy
chronic absenteeism the canary in the coal mine
Chronic Absenteeism –The Canary in the Coal Mine
  • Commonly defined as missing 20 or more days (a month of school or essentially 10%).
  • Shoots upwards starting in the 6th grade involving 30% or more of students in some cities
  • But is not measured and often even acknowledged.
  • Schools with 90% ADA, can have 20% of their students missing a month or more of school.
  • By the middle grades Chronic Absenteeism is infrequently a one time event. The total number of days students miss in the middle grade can be staggering
the impact of multiple years of chronic absenteeism in the middle grades
The Impact of Multiple Years of Chronic Absenteeism in the Middle Grades
  • Found in one major city that over 25% of the students cumulatively missed a year or more of schooling over a 5 year period from 6th grade forward.
  • Sneak Peak - from Forthcoming Report on Chronic Absenteeism - in a major state, 20,000 students missed a half year or more of schooling between 6th and 9th grade - and had a 3% enrollment rate in the State University System.
the ultimate signal of disengagement is the middle grade dropout
The Ultimate Signal of Disengagement is The Middle Grade Dropout
  • Recent Study by California Department of Education found 17,000 middle grade students who in a single year, dropped out before enrolling in high school.
  • Currently these students are not captured by federal accountability systems or graduation rate measures.
What Can Be Done to Make the Middle Grades Part of the Pathway to College and Career Readiness for All?

Fortunately, quite a lot…

three parts to a school s educational challenge
Three Parts To a School’s Educational Challenge
  • Academic Challenge - How many students enter the school behind grade level or without expected foundational skills or knowledge?
  • Engagement Challenge - How many students enter the school having already been chronically absent, in behavioral trouble, or having failed a course because they did not turn in their work?
  • Poverty Challenge - How many students enter school having experienced prolonged exposure to poverty, violence, homelessness, agency involvement, and/or lack of stable access to basic needs?
we will know we are making progress when
We Will Know We Are Making Progress When . . .
  • Schools commonly know in detail the scale and scope of the educational challenge they face.
  • They are organized structurally and programmatically with evidence-based practices to meet it.
  • Educational challenge influences resource allocation.

Second, help High Poverty Middle Schools assemble existing evidence based solutions into a comprehensive School Design that can meet the educational challenge faced.

designing schools to meet high educational challenges
Designing Schools to Meet High Educational Challenges

Providing the Right Support to the Right Student at the Right Time

at the Scale and Intensity Required

  • Intensive One on One Supports:
  • Driven by needs assessment
  • Case managed
  • Professionally provided when whole school and moderate intensity supports are not sufficient
  • Extra-Supports Provided:
  • At first sign of student need
  • To all students who need it (no triage)
  • Diagnostic tools insure it’s the right support (e.g. cognitive or socio-emotional)
  • Moderate intensity but if needed continuously available

Intensity of interventions

  • Whole School is Organized and Supported to Enable:
  • Effective instruction (including teacher professional development connected to the early warning indicators)
  • Safe and positive learning climate
  • High student engagement (Attend, Behave, Try Hard)
  • Collective efficacy and all graduate mission among staff
The good news is there is a growing body of evidence based knowledge for the Middle Grades that is being codified
  • Bush Institute Middle Grades Matters Initiative
  • Ed Source Middle Grade Handbook
  • Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Education (I3 Winner)
  • SREB Middle Grades Efforts
  • Diplomas Now (I3 Winner)
  • NASSP Breaking Ranks in the Middle
Third, combine school Transformation/Turnaround with Early Warning and Intervention Systems and enhanced student supports.
early warning indicator data tool
Early Warning Indicator Data Tool
  • Without additional support to provide interventions at the scale and intensity required to meet each student’s needs, teachers can easy feel overwhelmed. 
  • Research has shown that when teachers feel overwhelmed by the level of challenge in high-needs schools, they will often lower expectations for students.
link early warning systems to tiered interventions
Link Early Warning Systems to Tiered Interventions
  • Focus on effective intervention, not just identification
  • Need to be able to respond to the first signs that a student is falling off track-No Triage
  • Organize and integrate second shift of adults from community, Americorps and non-profits to provide supports at scale required
  • Have diagnostic tools to deduce if student behavior is driven by academic, socio-emotional needs or both
link early warning systems to tiered interventions continued
Link Early Warning Systems to Tiered Interventions continued…
  • Systematically apply school-wide preventative, targeted and intensive interventions until students are on-track
  • Recognize and build on student strengths
  • Provide time, training, and support to teachers
  • Match resources to student needs but practice intervention discipline
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of interventions
we will know we are making progress when1
We Will Know We Are Making Progress When . . .
  • Schools have strong prevention strategies and cultures that encourage students to attend, behave, and try
  • Schools have readily accessible and teacher friendly diagnostic tools to understand the academic and socio-emotional needs behind student disengagement
  • Schools are organized so teams of teachers work with manageable numbers of students, supported by a second shift of adults, with time built in and honored during the school day for collaborative data-driven work
  • Clear and supported pathways to college and career readiness at the scale and intensity required from sixth grade to post-secondary

Forth, Confront the Effort GapThe outcome of school needs to be worthwhile and schools need to be places where students and teachers want to be and work hard


We need to be honest that in over-stressed and under-supported environments there is a gap between teacher’s having high expectations and student’s having high aspirations and a strong belief that that they will be realized. This leads to diminished effort.

to escape this energy drain we need to build capacity at student teacher and district level
To Escape this Energy Drain we Need to Build Capacity at Student, Teacher, and District Level
  • Students - resiliency, goal setting, self management and organization skills
  • Teachers - collaborative diagnostic and intervention skills (not a GP but House)
  • Districts and States - managing a portfolio of schools with different structures and partners that provide capacities
we also
We Also
  • Need to meet middle grades students need for adventure and camaraderie by building into the school day, high intensity, cognitively rich electives-that are team and performance based-Debate, Drama, Robotics, Chess etc.
  • Need to help schools pair meeting this student need with teachers need to have increased time for collective work and collaboration built into the school day.
finally conduct policy reviews to support graduation for all
Finally Conduct Policy Reviews to Support Graduation For All
  • Schools and communities need to measure and act on chronic absenteeism-the number of students who miss a month or more of school (also measure those who miss a week or less)
  • Schools and communities need positive behavior support programs and alternatives to suspensions and may need to re-examine their disciplinary policies
  • Schools and communities need effective second chance and credit recovery programs which hold students accountable but provide a reason for them to keep trying
keeping every student on the path to high school graduation college readiness and adult success
Keeping Every Student on the Path to High School Graduation, College Readiness and Adult Success

Investing in Innovation (i3) winner


The Diplomas Now partners harness and combine their unique assets to keep students on track college and career ready

  • On-Track Indicator and Intervention System:
    • Research-based and validated interventions of increasing intensity are employed until student is back on track to graduation. Interventions are constantly evaluated for their effectiveness.
diplomas now sample results philadelphia middle schools
Diplomas Now Sample Results:Philadelphia Middle Schools

Diplomas Now partnered with three Philadelphia high poverty middle schools in 2009-2010. These schools average 615 students, 84% of whom are eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch. Below are the aggregate results for all three schools from the 2009-10 School year.


Course Performance


# of Students with less than 80% Attendance

# of Students with 3 or more negative behavior marks

# of Students receiving an F in Math or English



82% Reduction


52% Reduction


55% Reduction












78% Reduction









June 2009

June 2010

June 2009

June 2010

June 2009

June 2010


Fifth, while we are scaling Middle Grades for the 21st Century 1.0 we need to get to work designing Middle Grades for the 21st Century 2.0

middle grades ripe for re invention
Middle Grades Ripe for Re-Invention
  • We need to match the emerging academic requirements for success in the 21st century with the acknowledgement that a middle grade student is 12 years old.
  • For example, one among many possibilities might be centering continual improvement of reading, writing, and mathematical skills as well as the acquisition of science and history knowledge and habits of mind in the middle grades as defined by internationally benchmarked standards through engaging students in the practices of Engineering, Entrepreneurship, and Civic Engagement.
for more information
For More Information
  • Visit the Everyone Graduates Center at: www.every1graduates.org
  • Contact Robert Balfanz at: [email protected]