Posted by Anthony Salcito 
Vice President, Worldwide Education

Anthony Salcito
Anthony Salcito, Vice President, Worldwide Education

Six years ago in the Western Heights School District near Oklahoma City, nearly half of all students were dropping out before they could graduate. This was unacceptable, Superintendent Joe Kitchens decided, and began looking for a solution. He thought that by collecting data -- such as grades, attendance, socio-economic factors and other variables -- his teachers and counselors could better understand what was happening with students, why they would suddenly disengage and lose interest in class, and then proactively intervene with specialized programs to keep more students in school. The district deployed a new data system for tracking student progress, and today, Western Heights has reduced its dropout rate from 45 percent to 21 percent -- an amazing accomplishment. 

I’m lucky enough to have traveled to hundreds of schools around the United States over the years. Nearly everywhere I’ve been, reducing high-school drop-out rates has been one of the leading educational challenges. About 26 percent of incoming high school freshman will not graduate high school on time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And the overall graduation rate has changed little over the last three decades, despite advances in curriculum and teaching methods.

This should concern everyone, because a high-school diploma is the gateway to further education that students need to compete in today’s challenging global workforce. The U.S. Bureau of the Census reportsthat student dropouts have a higher rate of unemployment, are more likely to receive public assistance, and are more likely to engage in criminal activity.

The good news is that, as in Western Heights, innovations in software can help address this challenge. While the federal government mandated states back in 2001 to start collecting student and teacher data under the No Child Left Behind Act, only now are states rolling out state-wide data systems. The potential benefits from this data are huge, but schools are struggling to display it in meaningful ways so they can understand what it means and take action. With new business intelligence and data analytics technologies, schools can now turn static information into useable, actionable knowledge to improve student performance.

We see this beginning to happen in schools all across the country. Besides Western Heights in Oklahoma, the State of Maine, Pasadena Independent School District in Texas and others are all using Microsoft technologies to drive decision making and gain value from the transparency of data that reveals not only how the school and children are performing, but also how to deliver a personalized experience for students to match curriculum with learning outcomes.

Microsoft and our partners are developing on-premise and cloud-based software with business intelligence and predictive analytics that helps school leaders better understand which students may be on the verge of dropping out of school. Each of these partners has built solutions on top of Microsoft SharePoint Server and Microsoft SQL Server to collect data, analyze the myriad factors that contribute to students dropping out, and identify the most at-risk students.

Of course, software is just one piece of the puzzle. For the past two years, Microsoft has worked closely with the National Dropout Prevention Center to help guide educators on how to intervene most effectively with students that software solutions have identified as at risk. 

For more on the exciting ways that software is helping improve student and school performance, take a look at this new white paper. Also, I post frequently on this topic at Education Insights.