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Learning What it Takes

Learning What it Takes

Growing alarm over high dropout rates has created a groundswell of interest in ways to identify and respond to the needs of students at risk of falling off the graduation path. Groundbreaking research finds a substantial percentage of eventual dropouts can be identified at key transition points (sixth and ninth grades) using attendance, behavior, and course performance indicators from student data that are routinely collected in virtually all schools. This research, coupled with increased electronic access to data, is propelling districts and schools to begin developing early warning and collaborative response systems. These systems are using student-level administrative data to identify students who, absent effective intervention, face a great likelihood of not graduating from high school. They enable district- and school-based teams of adults to respond to student needs in an appropriate, coordinated, and timely manner, and continuously monitor student progress towards graduation.

The promise of early warning systems is that they:

  • use readily available data to identify students who, absent intervention, are likely to drop out;
  • enable teachers and administrators to cut through the massive amounts of data they receive to focus on the most important indicators that can be incorporated into realtime data systems to permit monitoring of student progress;
  • help schools and districts identify and examine the most effective ways to help students stay “on-track” to graduation;

Most importantly, these systems can:

  • accurately identify students at high risk of dropping out years before they leave school, providing educators and administrators time to intervene to get students back on track, and insight into how that can best be accomplished.

As noted in the recent national report On Track to Success (Bruce, et. al, 2011), which examines the current state of early warning system implementation across the country, using early warning indicators (EWIs) to intervene with students who are falling off-track is a relatively new practice. Schools and districts are just beginning to understand, design, and develop their own EWI systems to maximize their impact on student engagement and achievement.


To learn more, we visited middle and high schools in cities across the country to observe how they are using EWIs to monitor and respond to student needs. These schools were either field testing or implementing Diplomas Now, a school turnaround model that combines whole school improvement with enhanced student supports all guided by a data-driven early warning system. A few were in the initial stages of implementing the full Diplomas Now model (including school-wide organizational, curriculum, and instructional reforms), while others were just implementing prototypes of Diplomas Now’s tiered student supports intervention component. As such, while all the schools were implementing elements of Diplomas Now, they varied in what they were implementing and their level of experience with the model’s early warning system technology. This variation means that the schools we visited offer a broad-based sampling of the challenges and opportunities early warning systems will present school staff as they work to bring the power and promise of these systems into their schools.

In each school, we asked:

  • What do the school-based EWI reporting and response systems look like?
  • What does it take to implement EWI reporting and response systems well?
  • What are the primary challenges to implementation?

This report presents our initial findings. We begin by describing what EWIs are and how they fit into the Diplomas Now model, followed by a composite snapshot of an EWI meeting based on our observations across schools. We then explore five themes that describe how the EWI process is working in selected schools:

  1. Professional development and start-up
  2. Identifying students for intervention
  3. The EWI meeting process
  4. EWI data systems
  5. Interventions and follow-up

We conclude our report with reflections on the promise and challenges to implementing early warning systems and next steps for further inquiry.

Download the Full Report

Download the full report, available here in pdf.

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