Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz

Photo credit: Johns Hopkins University

Robert Balfanz is a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he directs the Everyone Graduates Center. Balfanz has been closely watching emerging data indicating a dip in high school graduation rates after more than a decade of steady increases in both school completion and two-year and four-year college degree attainment. The decline reflects the struggles that students faced while trying to learn during the pandemic, Balfanz says. And as younger students move up in grades, we risk seeing the lingering effects for “six, seven, eight years to come,” he adds. Balfanz, co-author with Martha Abele Mac Iver of the new book, Continuous Improvement in High Schools: Helping More Students Succeed, spoke to ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about some of the strategies that school leaders can adopt now to ameliorate pandemic-related achievement loss in high schools.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

What stands out about the dip in graduation rates?

For the past decade-plus, we’ve made really good progress, both in increasing graduation rates and college and career readiness, particularly for the students we used to leave behind. Low-income and minority students were really the drivers of those graduation gains. They had the outsized improvements that led to the national improvements. That’s at risk now. These students often live in communities hardest hit by the pandemic. They were often in schools that were remote the longest.

How does the teacher shortage impact this problem?

After a year of remote learning, ninth- and  10th-grade students in many schools were both new students. So, half the students in the building were unknown to teachers at the very time we had a teacher shortage and substitute crisis. There were essentially fewer adults to form relationships with kids and more kids in need of relationships. I think that’s one reason why we can see a spike in absenteeism, fighting, and failure. We’re short adults to mediate problems and to form those human relationships which are so central to long-term success in high school.

Where do school leaders begin to remedy this?

For one, embrace greater use of next-generation early-warning on-track response systems. They monitor a small set of predictive indicators that can tell us that a kid is not only on track for graduation but also postsecondary success. For the monitoring to work, we need human systems in place–teams of teachers and staff who know the students, who review data regularly, who use their wisdom and knowledge gained from talking to the students and families to determine the best course of action. It’s not just about gathering data, but data plus putting insight to work. Given that the pandemic has affected everyone in different ways—some kids are fine this week, not fine next week—we need to progress monitor all students and be proactive, not reactive. Too often, we don’t do anything until a student fails, gets suspended, or goes to truancy court. Then we’re in very difficult remediation or recovery efforts. We must try to prevent that first failure.


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