Diagnosing Future Dropouts

Annie Murphy Paul outlines the benefits of “tracking formulas” that gauge a young student’s likelihood to drop out of high school:

There is a danger, of course, that people who struggle early on will be written off too soon, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. But ignoring these super-early warning signs also carries risks. That’s because small initial differences have a way of snowballing into bigger ones over time. Here’s how one common scenario plays out …

Difficulties in third grade lead to the “fourth-grade slump,” as the reading-to-learn model comes to dominate instruction.

While their more skilled classmates are amassing knowledge and learning new words from context, the less-adept readers begin to avoid reading out of frustration. A vicious cycle sets in: school assignments increasingly require background knowledge and familiarity with “book words” (literary, abstract, and technical terms)— competencies that are themselves acquired through reading. Meanwhile, classes in science, social studies, history and even math come to rely more and more on textual analysis, so that the struggling readers begin to lag in these subjects as well. What began as a small gap has widened into a chasm.

Researchers call this the “Matthew effect,” after the Bible verse found in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” The availability of very early indicators of performance puts a whole new spin on the Matthew effect: teachers can use these indicators to address trouble spots before the student or employee ever has a chance to fall seriously behind.