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The phrase “Early Warning Systems” brings to mind the smoke detector in my kitchen and the ear-piercing alert it delivers when dinner prep isn’t going well. If you’ve never heard of Early Warning Systems in the context of students, the same analogy can still apply: When a student begins to “smoke” by showing a discernible number of negative indicators—absenteeism, academic failure, multiple office referrals—an “alarm” (of sorts) goes off, alerting the school that swift action is needed to help the student get back on track.

A variety of Early Warning Systems are cropping up across the country. In California, for instance, seven school districts are using a free data tool developed by the National High School Center to track how students are doing and identify which ones are heading toward dropout.

“It probably saves two or three days worth of two counselors’ time looking through records by hand,” said Principal Kelley Birch in an article in EdSource. “It allows counselors to spend time with the kids and implementing interventions, rather than getting the data.”

"Early Warning Systems are based on a body of research indicating that dropout is a gradual process and that students exhibit tell-tale signs along the way.

Featured in this blog earlier this year, Diplomas Now—a whole-school improvement model that incorporates an Early Warning System—is another example. Diplomas Now is premised on the research indicating that a sixth-grader with just one predictor—such as poor attendance, failure in English or math, or poor behavior—has a 75% chance of dropping out of school. Once such a student is identified, teachers and staff create an individualized plan to help that student succeed. Diplomas Now provides support groups for the most needy students and connects them with community resources, such as health care, counseling, housing assistance, clothing, and food.

The Need

Some of the most recent data on school engagement are depressing at best. According to a Gallup Poll released earlier this year, for each year students are in school after grade 5, their disengagement—or significant withdrawing from school—intensifies. Disengagement and a host of other factors lead more than 1 million students to eventually drop out of school each year. And as we all know, once students drop out of school, the prospects for their future decline sharply. Here are some facts:

  • One in 4 students fails to finish high school
  • Dropouts are unqualified for 90% of U.S. jobs
  • Dropouts earn $260,000 less than high school graduates over a lifetime
  • Adults who graduate from high school are eight times less likely to spend time in jail

How Early Warning Systems Work

Early Warning Systems are based on a body of research indicating that dropout is a gradual process and that students exhibit tell-tale signs along the way. These early warning indicators enable schools to identify which students are becoming disengaged and are most likely to drop out down the road.

Certain early warning indicators—commonly referred to as the ABC’s of dropout prevention—prove to exhibit consistent thresholds. On Track for Success, the first national assessment of Early Warning Systems, outlines some of the latest thresholds that are being used to flag faltering students:

  • Attendance: Being absent 10% of school days (or 20 school days)
  • Behavior: Two or more mild or more serious behavior infractions
  • Course performance: Not being able to read at grade level by the end of grade 3, failure in math or English by the end of grades 6–9, a GPA of less than 2.0, failing two or more courses in grade 9, and having to repeat grade 9

The good news is that when students are identified early, it’s possible to provide the right supports to help them adjust their course. According to On Track for Success, the best Early Warning Systems are characterized by the following combination of features:

  • Rapid identification of students who are in trouble
  • Swift interventions that are targeted to students’ immediate and longer-term needs for support, redirection, and greater success
  • Frequent monitoring of intervention success
  • Rapid modification of interventions that are not working
  • Shared learning from outcomes

State- and Districtwide Early Warning Systems

A few states—Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia—have led the way by developing statewide Early Warning Systems. In 2004, Louisiana created the Dropout Early Warning System (DEWS), one of the first state-level systems. It was inspired in part by a school principal and his leadership team and their successful use of data to identify failing students. The system is flexible—various individuals can enter the data, and the school can raise the bar for data thresholds if it chooses. Students who reach “at risk” status are flagged on a daily basis, and a report is sent automatically via e-mail. Schools and districts are required to have DEWS in place but are not required use it. Estimates show that 70% of Louisiana’s districts use the system—and 35% of schools use it well.

But to use these systems well, barriers to use must be overcome. As Early Warning Systems evolve, researchers and developers are recognizing the need to make them as easy to use as possible. The REVEAL Automated Dropout Early Warning System, used in Texas Region 10, collects data—enrollment, attendance, grades, credits, discipline—from the school’s existing information systems, so that users do not have to input data manually. Risk indicators and the students who fall under each risk category are provided, and users can drill down to get more detail.

To read more about the experience of schools, districts, and states that are pioneering the use of Early Warning Systems, see On Track for Success, which features case studies and lessons learned, and The National High School Center’s Heeding Early Warning Signs with Appropriate Interventions, which outlines steps that schools should follow if they want to build an Early Warning System for students.

Your Turn

Does your school, district, or state use an Early Warning System? If not, do you think such a system would be useful? Please add your thoughts and comments below.*

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