Your First-Grader Is Going to Be a High School Dropout

And other startling predictions from the brave new world of academic evaluations

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An article in Education Week sparked a controversy recently when Thomas C. West, an evaluation specialist at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, announced that he had devised a tracking formula that can predict, with startling accuracy, which students will drop out of high school. The formula can be applied as early as when students are in their second semester of first grade.

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The predictive factors themselves — behavior problems, frequent absences from school, reading skills that are below grade level — are not so surprising. What is significant about West’s formula is the larger trend it represents and the practical and ethical issues raised by that trend. Thanks to widespread automation and digitization, we now have access to more information, gathered at ever-earlier stages, about individuals’ performance at school. Once, it took many months or even years to compile a track record that could support predictions about the future; today we can glean hints of how people are doing much sooner. Clever tools can even allow us to measure and monitor our own progress. Newly awash in data, we must ask ourselves, What do we do with this information?

There is a danger, of course, that people who struggle early on will be written off too soon, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. But ignoring these super-early warning signs also carries risks. That’s because small initial differences have a way of snowballing into bigger ones over time. Here’s how one common scenario plays out:

Some third-grade students read a little less well than the rest of their classmates. The grade is important here, because third grade is the year students move from learning to read — decoding words using their knowledge of the alphabet — to “reading to learn.” The books children are expected to master are no longer simple primers but fact-filled texts on the solar system, Native Americans, the Civil War. Kids who haven’t made the leap to fast, fluent reading begin at this moment to fall further behind.

(MORE: Why Third Grade Is So Important: The “Matthew Effect”)

Difficulties in third grade lead to the “fourth-grade slump,” as the reading-to-learn model comes to dominate instruction. While their more skilled classmates are amassing knowledge and learning new words from context, the less-adept readers begin to avoid reading out of frustration. A vicious cycle sets in: school assignments increasingly require background knowledge and familiarity with “book words” (literary, abstract, and technical terms) — competencies that are themselves acquired through reading. Meanwhile, classes in science, social studies, history and even math come to rely more and more on textual analysis, so that the struggling readers begin to lag in these subjects as well. What began as a small gap has widened into a chasm. Researchers call this the Matthew effect, after a Bible verse found in the Gospel of Matthew:  “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

The availability of very early indicators of performance puts a whole new spin on the Matthew effect: teachers can use these indicators to address trouble spots before the student or employee has a chance to fall seriously behind. This principle applies not only to intervening at early points but also at subsequent “pivot points,” to borrow the phrase of Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at CUNY-Hunter College who has studied predictors of academic success and failure.

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For students, these crucial junctures include the transitions from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school, as well as the period covering the senior year of high school and first year of college (and don’t forget the summer in between, which I wrote about here).

In the Education Week article, the evaluation specialist West pointed out that his formula spots only “signs of students who drop out — it doesn’t mean they are dropouts.” But the research is clear that we also shouldn’t wait to help them avoid that fate.

66 comments
AmandaBeachum
AmandaBeachum

That is why, when the school gave up on my child when he developed epilepsy in the 4th grade, I pulled him out and started homeschooling. We do more in a day than they were doing with him in a week. No child left behind, my a$$.

bladerunner515
bladerunner515

Teachers don't need sophisticated tracking formulas to tell you which students will be "at risk" of dropping out; any elementary school can spot these students by 3rd grade.  Schools are overwhelmed, burdened with overcoming all the social problems of our society, and lack the resources to give these students the comprehensive interventions that would make the real difference.  All schools can provide are band-aid solutions, which help a few, and fall short for most. 

We know which students need the intervention, but we refuse to acknowledge what it would really take to help them.

vrome
vrome

What's the controversy?  The article is merely stating that students who have a slow and problematic start in school have trouble catching up with their peers scholastically, and as a result, it can be predicted reasonably well, but not perfectly accurately, that they will be drop outs later. 

Is this study controversial because its results were derived from "data scientists",  "data mining", "data analytics",  and "big data" warehouses and we as the general public simply don't like it because it exposes an obvious, but harsh reality, without leaving us any ability to deny this relationship truth?

This study didn't reveal anything common sense didn't express to your grandparents.  We simply have the hard data to back it up now.

jefnvk
jefnvk

Nope, my children won't, barring some unforseen disability.  I won't have kids until I am in a position to properly care for them and provide them with what they need to succeed.  

Now, teen mom who has popped out 3 by the time she is 20 and living off welfare checks in her mom's basement?  Ya, her kids might.....


XiraArien1
XiraArien1

@jefnvk If you wait until you have an established career and a great relationship to have kids, your eggs will be so rotten that you should be barred from having them.

The best age to have kids is 16-23 (both male and female). Sorry, no discussion, no 'wa-wa', that's a simple fact of biology that you can not argue with.

Less time for genetic mutations to accumulate (in the man AND woman), less tolerance for bad genetics in the baby from the womb, less of a lifetime of social beatdown on the epigenetics of the parents, less time for harmful hormone-simulants to accumulate in the fat of the mother.

This feminist fantasy world where everyone gets to have a successful and fulfilling career before having their kids is designed to destroy America, genetic bit by genetic bit. Don't worry though, I'm sure that other countries will be happy to take our land when we all become drooling imbeciles...

http://llltexas.com <- my blog


XiraArien1
XiraArien1

And who's going to pay for this early intervention? mmmm?

(from Texas)

goblue562
goblue562

Yeah, right.   I was a problem child in first grade because I was bored out of my gourd since I was already reading at a 3rd grade level.  I was absent quite a bit that first year because I had a serious problem with ear infections...  and yet I managed to graduate from college.    

Huh.  Imagine that.

AndrewK777
AndrewK777

@goblue562 

I did horrible in grade school, even failing a grade. When I was in first grade I was already reading at a seventh grade level and grade school was such mindless boredom that I couldn't take it. I have two bachelor's, two master's and in another year will have a PhD. There are always outliers. 

ziconater
ziconater

The 'Thomas C. West Predictor' would have clearly evaluated Albert Einstein as an an utterly useless basket case. I would like to suggest otherwise.

seasons2216
seasons2216

I agree with LoraPfundheller below, all people have different strengths, no one can "know it all." I do think that every child should learn to read, but I also do not think that they should have to be a "pro." Some are better at math. As far back as the 50's, maybe longer, many children quit school to take care of the family for one reason or another, whether it be on the farm, a death etc... Many of them went on to do some great skilled labor jobs, made decent money and have a decent 401k to retire on. I know some. - A good majority of people learn "hands on," by doing it, not reading it. I learned this when I trained my new employees as a manager. They learned faster and were less frustrated if I put them to work and had them do it as I showed them... did they have to do it a few times before they got it,  but it is no different than studying over and over and again, just the hands on was a better approach for them. - I also think that we need to start worrying more about "basic" education than if someone can do algebra, trig etc... many of these kids fall being in their basics and then struggle the rest of the way through, wouldn't you rather them be able to figure out their checkbook or count change then write formulas? I know my checkbook is set up to add and subtract and I don't use a formula and "complicate it all up." - Maybe look at their strengths and talk to them about their future in the beginning of high school to determine classes?? And make BASIC reading  and math, if they need, more of a priority then trying to cram a bunch of things many will never use on them... Oh, and the stock market would be a lot more important than trig and those advanced classes, don't you think?? - We have gone and complicated our system so bad that kids are failing more than ever, very sad. 

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@seasons2216 I don't particularly care if any given person likes to read Shakespeare or finds it easy.  But look at the ages they're talking about here: 3rd-4th grade.  Whether you're a hands-on learner or an auditory learner or a book learner, you still need to be able to read to a 4th grade level. 

It makes sense to me that we recognize those students who are struggling with reading as little kids, and do what we can to help them.  That's all this article is really saying.

LoraPfundheller
LoraPfundheller

Not everyone is good at learning from books. Not everyone is going to succeed at formal education. Instead of trying to force every child into the same mold, perhaps we should concentrate on helping less academic types develop their own strengths. Vocational training, and skilled jobs that require training but not "education" need to be the focus for kids who don't take to traditional classroom settings.

SarahConfran
SarahConfran

@LoraPfundheller School is not for the child- it is for society as a whole. It is important to be able to read- it is how information is passed around. Its how humans have come to communicate. The things taught in school are taught for a reason- they are the most important skills to have a population master. Reading: the ability to understand what others are trying to say. The ability to acquire information from others. Writing: the ability to share your information with others and communicate to others. Math: the ability to think in a logical manner. The ability to break large problems done into steps.

md4ca2012
md4ca2012

I cry foul, this bogus information can potentially create a system where significant numbers of children are discounted. The vast majority of school aged children are far more capable of learning than many of their "educators" are capable of teaching. This is not necessarily always the fault of the teacher, although often may be the case, lack of budgeting, or prioritizing public education are also at fault for children already "falling through the cracks". I also was discounted throughout my entire public education, every single year attending multiple remedial classes. Never did any teacher, or counselor take any time to consider otherwise. At that time I did not feel just bored with the content, I felt stupid, that school was no place for me. It came as a great surprise to me while attending college to receive the highest scores throughout my nursing education. I am thankful that the educators at that time (public education) were wrong in their evaluation, repeatedly, but how more so now during a time of financial crisis, and fiscal cuts. If this "specialist" is wrong on one count, or would that be a 10% margin of error, this information is absolutely useless, and should be completely discounted.   

joey.108108
joey.108108

Material life is not for everyone I guess. I only became motivated when I finally found a philosophy that could explain what I was always wanting to know, who am I? prior to that I just wanted to die, material life was anathema to me, there was literally nothing I wanted to do or be, nothing attracted me in the slightest.I felt that way from a very young age, tracking formulaes would have been useless and I was a successful student. But success in studies does not mean success in feelings of happiness, hope, love. I was still empty inside with a wall full of diplomas- go figure.

TroyOwen
TroyOwen

I think their "tracking formula" will make some kids not try as hard, being "labeled".

They "labeled" me at times in my life, it was mainly due to not caring.

All the teachers had to do was make it interesting, that's it.

If they could do that, I was all over the subject matter.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

Give them a few IQ tests and give their parents IQ tests. Then screen them for mental issues. You'll find out who can be educated and who can't. If everyone would stop being so touchy and sensitive (and corrupt) we could've fixed education years ago.