Recently the NPR program Marketplace did a story about the rise of the use of dropout early warning systems in public schools that you can read or listen to online. I was lucky enough to be interviewed for the piece because of the role I have played in creating the Wisconsin Dropout Early Warning System. Marketplace did a great job explaining the nuances of how these systems fit into the ways schools and districts work. I wanted to use this as an opportunity just write a few thoughts about early warning systems based on my work in this area.
Not discussed in the story was the more wonky but important question of how these predictions are obtained. While much academic research discusses the merits of various models in terms of their ability to correctly identify students, there is not as much work done discussing the choice of which system to use in application. By its nature, the problem of identifying dropouts early presents a fundamental trade-off between simplicity and accuracy. When deploying an EWS to educators in the field, then, analysts should focus on not how accurate a model is, but if it is accurate enough to be useful and actionable. Unfortunately, most of the research literature on early warning systems focuses on the accuracy of a specific model and not the question of sufficient accuracy.
Part of the reason for this focus is that each model tended to have its own definition of accuracy. A welcome and recent shift in the field to using ROC curves to measure the trade-off between false-positives and false-negatives now allows for these discussions of simple vs. complex to use a common and robust accuracy metric. (Hat tip to Alex Bowers for working to provide these metrics for dozens of published early warning indicators.) For example, a recent report by the Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) demonstrates how simple indicators such as grade 8 GPA and attendance can be used to accurately project whether a student will be on-track in grade 9 or not. Using ROC curves, the CCSR can demonstrate on a common scale how accurate these indicators are relative to other more complex indicators and make a compelling case that in Chicago Public Schools these indicators are sufficiently accurate to merit use.
However, in many cases these simple approaches will not be sufficiently accurate to merit use in decision making in schools. Many middle school indicators in the published literature have true dropout identification rates that are quite low, and false-positive rates that are quite high (Bowers, Sprott and Taff 2013). Furthermore, local conditions may mean that a linkage between GPA and dropout that holds in Chicago Public Schools is not nearly as predictive in another context. Additionally, though not empirically testable in most cases, many EWS indicator systems simply serve to provide a numeric account of information that is apparent to schools in other ways -- that is, the indicators selected identify only "obvious" cases of students at risk of dropping out. In this case the overhead of collecting data and conducting identification using the model does not generate a payoff of new actionable information with which to intervene.
More complex models have begun to see use perhaps in part to respond to the challenge of providing value added beyond simple checklist indicators. Unlike checklist or indicator systems, machine learning approaches determine the risk factors empirically from historical data. Instead of asserting that an attendance rate above 95% is necessary to be on-track to graduate, a machine learning algorithm identifies the attendance rate cutoff that that best predicts successful graduation. Better still, the algorithm can do this while jointly considering several other factors simultaneously. This approach is the approach I have previously written about taking in Wisconsin, and has also been developed in Montgomery County Public Schools by Data Science for Social Good fellows.
In fact, the machine learning model is much more flexible than a checklist approach. Once you have moved away from the desire to provide simple indicators that can be applied by users on the fly, and are willing to deliver analytics much like another piece of data, the sky is the limit. Perhaps the biggest advantage to users is that machine learning approaches allow analysts to help schools understand the degree of student risk. Instead of providing a simple yes or no indicator, these approaches can assign probabilities to student completion, allowing the school to use this information to decide on the appropriate level of response.
This concept of degree is important because not all dropouts are simply the lowest performing students in their respective classes. While low performing students do represent a majority of dropouts in many schools, these students are often already identified and being served because of their low-performance. A true early warning system, then, should seek to identify both students who are already identified by schools and those students who are likely non-completers, but who may not already be receiving intervention services. To live up to their name, early warning systems should identify students earlier than after they have started showing acute signs of low performance or disengagement in school. This is where the most value can be delivered to schools.
Despite the improvements possible with a machine learning approach, a lot of work remains to be done. One issue that was raised in the piece in the Marketplace story is understanding how schools put this information to work. An EWS alone will not improve outcomes for students -- it only enables schools more time to make changes. There has not been much research on how schools use information like an early warning system to make decisions about students. There needs to be more work done to understand how schools as organizations respond to analytics like early warning indicators. What are their misconceptions? How do they work together? What are the barriers to trusting these more complex calculations and the data that underlie them?
The drawback of the machine learning approach, as the authors of the CCSR report note, is that the results are not intuitive to school staff and this makes the resulting intervention strategy seem less clear. This trade-off strikes at the heart of the changing ways in which data analysis is assisting humans in making decisions. The lack of transparency in the approach must be balanced by an effort on the part of the analysts providing the prediction to communicate the results. Communication can make the results easier to interpret, can build trust in the underlying data, and build capacity within organizations to create the feedback loops necessary to sustain the system. Analysts must actively seek out feedback on the performance of the model, learn where users are struggling to understand it, and where users are finding it clash with their own observations. This is a critical piece in ensuring that the trade-off in complexity does not undermine the usefulness of the entire system.
EWS work represents just the beginning for meaningful analytics to replace the deluge of data in K-12 schools. Schools don't need more data, they need actionable information that reduces the time not spent on instruction and student services. Analysts don't need more student data, they need meaningful feedback loops with educators who are tasked with interpreting these analyses and applying the interventions to drive real change. As more work is done to integrate machine learning and eased data collection into the school system, much more work must be done to understand the interface between school organizations, individual educators, and analytics. Analysts and educators must work together to continually refine what information schools and teachers need to be successful and how best to deliver that information in an easy to use fashion at the right time.
Read about the machine learning approach applied in Montgomery County Public Schools.
Learn about the ROC metric and how various early warning indicators have performed relative to one another in this paper by Bowers, Sprott, and Taff.
Learn about the Wisconsin DEWS machine learning system and how it was developed.
Read the comparison of many early warning indicators and their performance within Chicago Public Schools.