Elaine Allensworth is the Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium, where she has conducted research on educational policy and practice for the last 20 years. She is recognized as an expert in the areas of students’ educational attainment, school leadership, and school improvement.

Elaine spoke to Emily Freitag about her research on the factors that predict whether students will drop out of high school and reflected on how to apply best practices for early warning indicator systems during distance learning.

EF: As we do with all of these interviews, I’d love to start in a personal place and hear a little bit about you and your journey as a learner and what that has taught you about learning,

EA: I’ll go back to my childhood. I grew up in the 70s and early 80s. I was fortunate because I had parents who are very sociable and they just are friendly and warm to everyone that they meet. I grew up with tons of adults constantly in my household, from all kinds of backgrounds—different nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations. This was in the 70s and 80s, and we lived in a two-bedroom apartment. There was not a lot of space, but we always had people over. And my parents would try to figure out ways to travel. We would take road trips all the time, and they would put together these travel and learning trips for students. So, I got to travel a lot as a child. I really believe that diversity and experiencing things through different perspectives is incredibly important for your own growth as a person. I had a number of formative experiences that really helped shape who I am. As a high school student, I was involved in this organization where you would get trained as a public health worker throughout the year. And then in the summers, you would get assigned to work with a Ministry of Health in Central America somewhere. They’d send you off to a remote town living with a family to do public health projects. I spent a couple of summers in Mexico and Costa Rica doing sanitation projects and we would build latrines. I would work with the local men and the family and we built latrines. I lived there for a few months at a time, and I got to know the culture. It was just really seeing things from a different perspective. Then, in college, I would volunteer at a homeless shelter for several days a week. My job there was not only to do intake but just to problem-solve with people about how to deal with different issues. That helped me understand our government system and how that works. So I feel like these kinds of things were challenging and different and really helped me see the world in different ways. Then in college, I was one of these people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. I had so many different majors—music major,  chemistry pre-med major, Spanish major. I ended up realizing that I need to choose something. I ended up as a Spanish major and education minor. I went into teaching because I always wanted to do a job where I was giving back. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in sociology, in urban studies. But, I feel like because I spent so much time in music and in Spanish and in chemistry, I actually feel like I’ve used them in my life. It makes me think about things in a different way. I feel like my brain works better when I’m thinking about learning because having all of these very diverse experiences makes me see things in different ways and helps me make connections. So I would say you don’t want to box yourself in, experience as many different things and different perspectives as we can.

Another theme is the freedom to be creative. I grew up in this apartment building kind of sprawling on the edge of town. I was embarrassed sometimes because it was a small apartment. But those were the best places to grow up. There were tons of kids, and they were outside of town, so there were all these fields and forests. We would just go off. It was the opportunity to just make up stories and adventures and lands and things. Creativity is a really important part of learning and having the opportunity to just explore and try things out is really critical.

My final thought is on the idea of challenge, but not over-challenge. The things that are the hardest to do, the things where you’re so nervous about it or scared or you don’t know how to do it—I think those are really, really important. Challenge in school is really important. You have to do things that are hard that you don’t want to do because that’s how you’re going to grow. But I also feel like sometimes we go too much. My school offered one AP class, I didn’t take it. It was the 80s, I was in a public school, there wasn’t a press to go to highly competitive colleges or anything. I applied to one undergraduate institution, my local state university, and honestly, I feel like I got a great education in high school and in college. Now I’m in this elite environment at the University of Chicago. I feel like the students these days are killing themselves and I just look at that, and I think, For what? Why? I don’t know that you get something so much better for killing yourself in this kind of academic realm, when I feel you’d be so much better off letting yourself try different things. I believe you have to challenge yourself. But it’s not about always doing the hardest thing or being part of the rat race. It’s about challenging yourself to do new things, but not putting so much pressure on children that you’re making them miserable.

EF: Thank you so much for sharing that. Take us now into your research and your experience. We are exploring the question, How do we make sure that we don’t further exacerbate inequity with our educational response to this pandemic? We’d love to learn from the lessons from Chicago and your research.

EA: You want to figure out systems to make sure that teachers are focusing on students as learners, rather than focusing on the structure of the class. I know teachers would say, “I care about my students as learners, that’s the number one thing.” But so much that they learn in teacher education and so much of the pressure that they feel in their daily jobs is about the structure of the class, rather than really understanding how students are experiencing that class. In the end, it’s how students are experiencing the class that actually matters. It doesn’t matter what content you teach if the student is not engaged with that content. There’s so much to do and to keep track of that it’s really easy for the learner to get lost or to make assumptions about why the learner is not succeeding, or to just not have the time to figure out what to do differently.

In the end, it’s how students are experiencing the class that actually matters. It doesn’t matter what content you teach if the student is not engaged with that content.

What we’ve seen in Chicago that has made a dramatic difference is to have systems in place that have really key data on students, where teachers are getting together and talking about how to support students in a real-time way. In Chicago, a lot of this happened with the early warning indicator systems focused on Freshmen On Track. We found that ninth grade was a key year for whether students were graduating high school, and we now know also for whether they’ll graduate college. Ninth grade is this key transition year. It’s this year where you’re new to high school and you’re figuring out, Do I belong here? Can I succeed? You’re coming up with new strategies for navigating school, classes, and new responsibilities. If you can figure that out and be successful, you’re going to have your systems in place, whatever those are, to succeed. If you don’t, then you’re going to wonder, Am I just going to fail again? Do I really belong here? And that’s going to completely undermine you.

So, we found ninth grade is this really critical year and then the school district developed real-time data reports that they would give to schools. There were several structures that came into place. Some schools had on-track coordinators, other schools were part of a network that would get together and look at data together. They developed these systems where teachers would just get these really simple lists of each ninth-grader flagged when attendance or grades dropped. Teachers would get together and share information about students and start to ask, Why is this student getting a D? Then, they reached out to students to hear from them. What they began to realize, and what we’ve seen in our research, is that all students want to be successful and they want to succeed. It’s not that the students don’t care or the families don’t care.

There are lots of different reasons that students might not be engaged in school. If you’re just kind of letting things go or making excuses that they can’t do it for this or that reason, then students will fall behind. The more that they fall behind, the harder it is to catch up. They get frustrated, they feel embarrassed, and that makes them withdraw further. Students don’t ask for help when they need it. They get embarrassed, and then they do less. It really took these systems where teachers would reach out to students to find out what’s going on and then problem-solve around, What is happening? How do we deal with whatever this is? There are so many different things that it could be, whether it’s taking care of a sick parent, or fear of a bully in the school, or not getting along with a teacher. You have to figure those things out. Then, once you start to get together with teachers in school, you see systematic things that are influencing students. As a teacher, you don’t know what to deal with on your own, but you can figure out strategies together. That made a huge difference to have a system and everyone participates together.

I’ve seen schools where a lot of people think learning is about looking at test scores and teaching what they need to succeed. What we’ve found is that focusing on test scores doesn’t actually improve test scores very much. Getting students engaged in learning improves their test scores. Getting students engaged in learning means they learn more, and then they do better on tests. With the Freshmen On Track Initiative, there was this idea that if you really focus on getting more students to pass and stay in school, that test scores will go down. What we found is the opposite actually happened. The more that students were getting their work done, coming to class, then the more they learned and the more scores went up. So we have more students staying in school and graduating with higher test scores and higher gains.

What we’ve found is that focusing on test scores doesn’t actually improve test scores very much. Getting students engaged in learning improves their test scores.

EF: So when schools focused on test scores and strategies to improve test scores, it did not lead to improved test scores. But when schools focused on improving engagement and learning test scores went up—and is that like attendance and grades?

EA: Attendance and getting your assignments in. Basically, they would flag any student that was getting a D or F, because obviously, those students need more support. You want to do it as early as possible because when students have missed half their assignments, it could be really hard to catch up. Basically, if students are getting D’s or F’s, they’re not engaged, and they’re not learning anything. If your job is to teach that student, you are not succeeding. The way that your job is structured might have made that really hard. We tend to structure schools as if everything is perfect and all students can come to school ready to learn every single day, and if they don’t then that’s not the teacher’s problem or the school’s problem, it’s the student’s problem. The thing is, we know that that’s not how life works.

EF: Especially in a pandemic.

EA: We know that people don’t have the resources to get to school every day with clean clothes and food. We know that that is not the case, and yet we structure our schools as if it is. Even if you talk to families with a lot of resources, they will talk about all the extra resources that they’ve put into their children. If a child is suffering from anxiety and the child needs a psychologist or a doctor, or if their child needs a tutor, they have the resources to get the extra support that their child needs. Not all families have that, even though we know that all families need those things. We have this system that’s structured as if everyone is perfectly fine, everything’s perfect, and they’re ready to go every single day. And that is not reality. The fewer resources you have, the harder it is to begin to meet those demands.

We also found that missing five days in the fall semester in ninth grade lowered your probability of eventually graduating high school by something like 20 percentage points. Five days. It’s basically a week, it doesn’t even seem like much. The problem is that it adds up. You don’t know when you’re going to miss something that’s really important and you’ve just fallen further behind.

EF: There’s a causation vs. correlation question there.

EA: Schools started keeping track of when students started having absences or missed assignments, and they started reaching out to those students early. We wondered if there are other things that are causing lowered attendance or causing students not to get their assignments done that also influence graduation. Those things will still exist, so we thought we’re not going to see this perfect relationship. We thought you might fix attendance and grades, and then they still don’t graduate. That what we thought would happen, and that is not what happened. As schools work more on improving attendance, improving student engagement in classes, getting their work done, and getting grades up, there was a direct correlation to not only passing classes but eventually graduating.

EF: And test scores as well?

EA: Test scores went up too, which we did not know would happen. You could hypothesize that it would happen, but people actually thought the opposite would happen. In general, people were very resistant. The thought was that if you focus on students who are the least engaged, you’re lowering your standards. Then there’s the idea that you’re going to keep more students in school and have students who are the low achievers in the class come into school more, and that’s going to make it worse for everyone. Actually, the students are coming to class anyway and have not been engaged, and being behind actually does slow down the class. When you give students who are struggling extra support, it helps everybody.

EF: Take us into what you found worked. What kinds of support moves led to better attendance and work completion?

EA: You have to structure it in ways that support adults to support students. It has always got to be with the student as the focus, but you’ve got to figure out systems for adults to support students. We know teachers have the responsibility to make sure their students succeed. What usually happens is teachers will say things like, “If you need help, come see me after school or at lunch.” First of all, students don’t come for help when they need it. You’re leaving it up to the student, and then you’re having teachers figure out what to do on their own when they have no extra information. That approach isn’t successful. You actually have to have structures that are set up where teachers and other staff in the school are working together and they’re looking at data on students. You always have to make sure that what you’re doing is actually having a positive effect on students because a lot of this is coming up with things that work for your school and work for you and making sure you have buy-in. It’s focusing on the data on how students are actually doing, and on if what you’re doing is actually making a difference.

EF: Almost like a continuous improvement practice?

EA: Right. For example, in ninth-grade team meetings, a student might only be flagged in one class, and look at what their attendance and their grades are like their core classes. Although, we did find that non-core classes matter just as much as core classes. Gym, art, all those things matter.

EF: Hold on. So attendance and completion of assignments in non-core classes mattered as much as in core class?

EA: It does, yes.

EF: Wow. Super powerful.

EA: The On Track Initiative is focused on the core classes. In some cases, a student might just be struggling in one class but not struggling in their other classes. So in those cases, the teacher in the class where they’re struggling can learn how to help that student be successful from other teachers. Or maybe there’s one class where the student is successful and that teacher understands something about that student that can help the other teachers.

EF: Did you find that there was a structure to these meetings that was needed?

EA: Structure is important, and you need to have a facilitator. Sometimes it can be difficult conversations, and in those situations, the first thing you’re going to do is start blaming students. Having someone who can have positive conversations will keep the focus always on how we can help the student. Another structure that some schools use is to have on-track coordinators who are non-teaching staff members. The on-track coordinators would get the reports and then they would look at classes where students are getting a D or F and bring in the teacher, the parent, and the student to try to figure out what’s going on, and then come up with strategies together. Another thing is that there might be students who are struggling across all their classes. In that case, it’s time to figure out what’s happening with that student and if there are other supports that need to be brought in. A lot of students will have things externally that they’re really struggling with but they’re embarrassed to talk about. It’s a matter of trying to figure out what is happening with the student and how we can support them, and that’s beyond what anyone teacher could do. So once you see that this is not just a problem in one or two classes and this student is really struggling, let’s figure out how we reach out.

EF: I’m just taking myself back into my own classroom. And I’m sort of puzzling. I’m like, why isn’t this ubiquitous?

EA: I was a teacher, too. There’s so much focus on going through your content. I remember I taught summer school one time, and it was mostly students who failed the year before and then a few students who were trying to get ahead. It’s a very compressed time, so if a student missed you had to call home and find out what was going on. As a teacher in the school year, I had never called parents. And I was required to do this. And I remember there was one student who’s like Mr. Tough Guy, and I had to call his mom. So, I called his mom and she started talking and I realized I had her as a student in my night class. I was teaching ESL at night, and she was one of my students there. I realized I knew her and we had a connection. He never missed a single day after that, and he became much attentive. I was like, Oh my god, why was I not calling parents before?

EF: And why didn’t the system make it happen?

EA: It forced having a policy where you had to log calls. We did this study to see what’s happening in ninth grade here. Why are some schools more successful than others? There’s this one school whose Ninth Grade On Track rates are much higher, their graduation rates are higher, but if you look at eighth-grade test scores they were just slightly below the district’s average. So what was going on with the school? The principal was very, very strict about attendance. All parents had to sign a thing before the school year that says, “We will not take students out for trips, that students will come every day.” If a student didn’t come to school, for every class that that student missed, the teacher had to call home and log the call. If the parents thought the student was in school, they would send someone out to try to find the student. Parents would be getting multiple calls a day, so immediately it sends a message to students that you’re not going to skip and fall behind. And you’re making that connection with the parents.

EF: Take us now into COVID. Policy leaders and school leaders are trying to figure out, What does attendance even mean if you’re in a totally distance setting? What do you think are the lessons for this time?

EA: I think that all of the things I just said are even more important. Teachers are going to be relying on parents. It’s about family communication, really reaching out to students to understand how they’re experiencing things. Without having the students in front of you, you have no idea unless you’re actually talking to students, or talking to parents for younger children, to find out how they’re engaging. Also, the students are going to have very different settings to engage in learning in terms of the access to technology, in terms of space, in terms of time, in terms of the ability of parents to provide support. It is all going to be so variable and then not to mention, the stress from the pandemic and from the economic fallout of the pandemic. That communication is going to be really key. But I think you can still use the same general principle of looking at assignment completion to see if students are getting their work done and that they’re engaged. You want to make sure that they’re not feeling overstressed, that they feel like they have support, and that it’s work that they feel like they have some interest in. But what you really want to make sure is if students are not getting any assignment that you understand why. Then you can problem-solve with family members about whatever those issues are or with other teachers. Trying to figure out what it is the students need so they get the resources to engage in school. Another thing is, a lot of people right now are saying that there’s just a lot going on. We have got to be careful. You have to be understanding that people are not going to be able to engage as usual, that students, teachers, parents are going to be under stress. But you also don’t want to give up on students and families.

You have to be understanding that people are not going to be able to engage as usual, that students, teachers, parents are going to be under stress. But you also don’t want to give up on students and families.

EF: The truth that you started with, that kids want to succeed, there’s nothing about this context that has changed that.

EA: Families with more resources can buy their way out of a lot of stresses and problems. And so if you just say that families that don’t have the resources or connectivity are just too stressed out, you’re just going to be increasing inequality. You’re just going to be letting inequality get wider and wider. Even when families are under stress, they care a lot about the children’s education. So, it’s not just saying, “Oh, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” But instead ask, “How can we structure or do things in ways where students really are engaged in learning?”

EF: I’ve learned so much from this. Any final thoughts on things that we try that don’t work?

EA: Too much of this focus on test scores and students meeting benchmarks on test scores is really problematic for kids. The more that you’re just focused on the test, it hurts literacy scores, reading comprehension, all those things. We understand what we’re reading because we’ve had this experience and we can read the story. If you don’t understand what it is you’re reading because you don’t have the framework to understand it, you can’t understand it. We’re limiting students’ experiences and the breadth of what they’re learning and not allowing for creativity. You want students to have agency in learning. You don’t want to limit the kinds of ways that they could show that they’ve learned something. In real life, they need to be able to think creatively. I do worry that we’ve been so focused on their test scores being behind that we’re going to say, “Okay, it’s hard to do any learning. Let’s just focus on those tests and skills.” We actually know that what’s really important right now is that students are engaged and excited about learning because it’s going to be hard to get them to get stuff done. Think about, How can we do really creative things like take advantage to the internet or to do things in a way that’s more mind expanding?