The front page of yesterday’s Boston Globe carried a disturbing story about the high number of eighth graders in urban school districts across Massachusetts considered at risk of dropping out of school. It’s part of what Commissioner Mitchell Chester of the state’s Department of Elementary and Education calls an “early warning index.” As the Globe reports, “The earlier schools know who is at greatest risk of not earning a diploma, the sooner staff can intervene to get students back on track.”
The ideal early warning index would begin well before eighth grade. Children’s ability to read by the end of third grade strongly predicts their chances of success in school and beyond. Three-quarters of children who have trouble with reading in third grade will continue to struggle in school. These children are at great risk of not finishing high school.
This early warning index also includes children’s vocabulary in kindergarten. Research finds a high correlation between vocabulary in kindergarten and reading scores in 10th grade. Something as simple as playfully talking to babies and young children is part of our early warning index, too. The amount of playful talk that a child experiences before age 3 is a better predictor of her later school success than family income or race or social status.
This early warning index, along with decades of research, tells us that supporting family engagement, investing in high-quality early education and focusing the primary grades on early literacy are critical ingredients of any dropout prevention campaign. So are developmentally appropriate assessments before the third grade MCAS and language-rich curricula that emphasize reading comprehension as well as decoding.
All of this is not to say that later interventions are not also necessary, but policymakers should minimize the need for them by maximizing the chances of preventing problems in the first place.
(Correction: The article on STEM that I wrote about yesterday appeared in Mass High Tech.)