Karen Pittman: Alternative ABC's

ABCs
The Forum for Youth Investment
Karen Pittman
July 29, 2013

Attendance.
Behavior.
Course performance.

Three types of data that all schools have in abundance. Three indicators so predictive of school failure that the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University urges that all schools use this ABC data to establish “early warning systems,” which monitor individual student data and trigger mandatory reviews of students who reach red flag levels.  

Research shows that these early warning systems (EWS) work. Implementing them is a critical first step towards creating responsive schools. But let’s aim for more. What if we combined education indicators with youth development indicators to create a holistic early warning system?

This idea came to mind while I listened recently to a panel of middle grades experts that included a charter school principal, a seasoned member of the team at the Hopkins center, and two people who travel the country as middle grades improvement coaches and advocates. They were speaking to cross-sector teams from  a dozen communities committed to improving middle grades success as a part of a Ready by 21 Initiative led by United Way Worldwide. Each acknowledged the importance of the ABC system as a tool not only for identifying slipping students, but for building a performance driven culture among faculty.

Each also talked passionately about the things they were doing to increase student engagement: project based learning, community service placements, student advisories, family outreach, expanded learning schedules.

Their stories got me thinking. The absence of problems, research shows, is not the same as the presence of assets. It would take years of research to calibrate an expanded set of triggers such as those associated with the Hopkins Center’s ABCs. However, many teachers, parents and youth workers would agree that we could significantly increase student engagement and success, particularly in the middle grades, if we expanded the definition and scope of the ABCs to include:

Out-of-School (OST) time and settings – Expand early warning data collection to capture troubling patterns in attendance, behavior and performance in OST times and settings in order to increase our ability to spot disengagement.

Positive measures – Expand early warning data to capture positive patterns, in school and out, that could signal opportunities to increase engagement by building on student strengths.

Shouldn’t bells go off not only when young people are unexpectedly slipping, but also when they are succeeding?  Shouldn’t bells go off when these thresholds are hit not only in school but wherever learning happens?

I understand the challenges associated with building a basic EWS and the concerns about providing busy professionals with too much data. I know that this expanded ABC data does not come easily or cheaply. So it was with some trepidation that I shared my expanded ABC’s idea with the expert panel, offered a few examples of what the alternative ABC data might reveal (e.g., a data-sharing agreement in Louisville found absent students attending after-school programs), and asked:

Would it make a difference if a teacher or counselor talking to a 7th grade student who has been flagged by the EWS also had the information on these alternative ABCs? The response from the panel and the participants was an enthusiastic yes.

Over the next few months, the Forum will kick off a set of discussions that push the boundaries of what we mean by expanded learning opportunities and what we are doing to expand those opportunities for young people, both in and out of school. Thanks to the encouragement of this panel, those discussions will include expanding the definition and scope of the ABCs that are tracked by EWS. 

What Would an Expanded ABC Tell You?

Below are ABC profiles for three (theoretical) students. The italicized text is information captured by a traditional EWS; the rest is information provided through an expanded EWS – information that can reveal very different engagement patterns.

How would your assessments of these youths differ with this more complete information?

Student A ABC Warning Signs ABC Working Assets
In School A. Misses 10% of school days
B. Gets in cafeteria fights
C. Failed math
A. Attends band rehearsals regularly
B. Volunteers to help music teacher
C. Won school award in art
Out of School A. Misses 10% of tutoring lessons
B. Gets in fights in neighborhood
C. Dropped out of robotics camp
A. Attends youth program regularly
B. Teaches art to preschoolers at church
C. Has passed 3 art courses at rec center

 

Student B ABC Warning Signs ABC Working Assets
In School A. Misses 10% of school days
B. Gets in cafeteria fights
C. Failed math
No school-based assets reported
Out of School No OST problems flagged A. Attends youth program regularly
B. Teaches art to preschoolers at church
C. Has passed 3 art courses at rec center

 

Student C ABC Warning Signs ABC Working Assets
In School A. Misses 10% of school days
B. Gets in cafeteria fights
C. Failed math
No school-based assets reported
Out of School A. Misses 10% of tutoring lessons
B. Gets in fights in neighborhood
C. Dropped out of robotics camp
No OST assets reported

 

Download this column as a PDF by clicking here.


Karen Pittman is one of the country’s top leaders on youth development and youth policy, and founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, SparkAction's managing partner. The Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan "action tank" dedicated to helping communities and the nation make sure all young people are Ready by 21®: ready for college, work and life. Informed by rigorous research and practical experience, the Forum forges innovative ideas, strategies and partners to strengthen solutions for young people and those who care about them.

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