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News From the Future: You're Going to Drop Out

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It's not precognition, but it's still prescient: A new dropout-warning system being built in Montgomery County, Md., can flag 75 percent of future dropouts as early as the second semester of 1st grade. My colleague Sarah D. Sparks has a big story about the tracking system, which you should read.

Some things are hard to foretell: the lottery, the NFL playoffs, love. But there is so much data and research about what increases the odds of a student doing poorly that this system seems inevitable for many more districts. It's not perfect—it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future—but it seems workable. This is the future of big data in education: more and better comprehensive modeling systems.

This formula is more than a glorified attendance record; this is an accountability system. Schooling requires 13 challenging years, if not more, and one bad incident early on can snowball into even worse circumstances. That requires teachers, administrators, and counselors—especially the latter two, who aren't in the classroom every day—to practice constant vigilance. This data won't tell them what to do, just that they need to do something, and it pushes toward obsolescence the excuse that "no one knew" a child was struggling.

The system is not currently being used to track individual students in real time, but I wonder how far away that is. Many states have or continue to develop longitudinal data systems, and they'll just keep getting better. And I'm curious what will happen at that point; I envision a counselor poring over an Excel sheet everyday, saying, "Oh no! Tim's newest absence increases his chances of dropping out by 3 percent—get him a tutor!"

Montgomery County probably has the resources to fully utilize the information the system offers or will eventually offer, but then it's also the 10th-richest county in the United States. In major urban areas, like Chicago, or Philadelphia, or Detroit, which have the collective fiscal solvency of a cantaloupe, what help will be available?

Because the worst thing is to see an oncoming problem and have no way to respond.

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