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Early Warning Signs: One F in Middle School Matters

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Experts have been telling educators for quite a while now that they should be paying careful attention to bad patterns in key indicators like attendance and grades as early as middle school so they can catch students who are at risk of dropping out, and provide extra support.

Patterns of Ds and Fs... Patterns of missing class. That's hardly counterintuitive. But now the folks who did some of the most definitive work on early indicators, Robert Balfanz's team at Johns Hopkins, tell us that failing even one semester of a course could be a potent early sign of increased dropout risk.

In this recent report on Denver's students, Balfanz's team provides data showing that three-quarters of the students who dropped out of Denver schools in 2006-07 had failed one semester of a course, compared with half of the students who graduated.

Tracking that same "primary risk indicator" back to middle school, the researchers found that more than a third of Denver's 6th graders that year had at least one semester course failure.

This seems like a very valuable piece of information for teachers, counselors, and principals to have; one F and a kid needs some extra support.

But let's touch Earth here for a second. Many middle and high schools can't or just don't monitor students closely enough to detect troubling patterns, let alone respond well to them. In my work in high schools, an alarming number of students have told me that no one seems to notice when they chronically skip class. If schools snooze through stuff like that, do they have what it takes to pick up on one F in middle or high school and close their arms around that kid to offer help?

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As I have sometimes said to my colleagues, students, and parents, Let me gently push back at the opening of this article. The first sentence of the above article may be backward. For some time now, middle level educators have been telling the experts about the need to advocate for the unique group of young adolescents encompassed by middle level education. The importance of paying attention to the academic, emotional, social, and physical development of 10-14 year olds has been the focus of middle level educators and their professional organizations for several decades now. There are literally thousands of studies, surveys of the research, state, national, and international reports, as well as books indicating what is needed, what works, and what does not work. The more comprehensive works such as NMSA's "This We Believe", NASSP's "Breaking Ranks in the Middle", ACT's "The Forgotten Middle", and the State of Maine's "Bright Futures" span from the 1960s right up to May 2009. My point is that excellent middle level educators know what needs to be done. Unfortunately, sometimes "the experts" like our students, take a different, and longer, route to figuring out what the real focus needs to be. Now that the experts have caught up and on to the importance of what happens in the middle, they need to roll up their collective sleeves and provide their time and resources to support the educators that work in the middle. Several billions of dollars in national high school reform in the past ten years may have been better spent with a focus on 6-12 reform, perhaps?

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