Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2012

Mentors in the Check & Connect program
Photo by Ray Whitehouse

Mentors in the Check & Connect program, which Guryan is evaluating as an intervention to prevent students from dropping out of school, build relationships with truant students to connect them with school.

Jonathan Guryan

Associate professor Jonathan Guryan is working to improve education in the Chicago Public Schools by providing scientific evidence about strategies that are most effective and cost-efficient.

doing research to help solve school problems


By Jessica Tobacman
Doing research to helpsolve school problems

If disengaged elementary and middle school students had long-term links to adult mentors, would they be more likely to engage in school and their academic futures — to progress and ultimately graduate? Associate professor Jonathan Guryan and a team of investigators are providing hundreds of students with adult mentors, with the goal of increasing attendance and student engagement at school. The idea is to transform low graduation rates into new commitments to learning.

Guryan, an economist, is leading a research team studying how to strengthen student engagement in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). He is working with CPS to test a mentoring program called Check & Connect, assessing its effects on school attendance and learning outcomes as well as the best time to intervene in a child’s life.

The Roots of Dropout

“The motivation for the study came out of an interest in trying to understand high dropout rates, to think of dropping out not as something that happens when kids are 15 to 17, but as the end point of a developmental process that starts earlier and presents itself as truancy or chronic school absence,” says Guryan, a faculty member in the Human Development and Social Policy program and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. He is also codirector of the Urban Education Lab, which is working to improve education outcomes by providing scientific evidence about strategies that are most effective and cost-effective.

Part of his work focuses on understanding why students drop out. “There is an alarmingly high fraction of kids missing school. If they skip school in earlier grades, kids are much more likely to drop out before graduation. We wanted to see if intervention helps support kids in the early years, if it’s a long-term, more effective way to decrease dropout rates,” Guryan says.

The specific intervention that Guryan and his team are testing, Check & Connect, is motivated by findings from the late University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman that a highly protective factor against school failure for children is having a strong relationship with a pro-social adult — something that far too many children do not currently have, particularly those growing up in distressed family and community environments.

That intervention is being provided through a research project supported by nearly $7 million in funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences and the William T. Grant Foundation. The research team is investigating Check & Connect as a randomized clinical trial, in which some eligible students but not others receive the intervention. This structure allows for a “gold standard” evaluation of the program’s impact on school engagement, academic achievement and key non-academic outcomes such as involvement with the juvenile justice system and behavior in school.

A Program with Promise

The Check & Connect program involves mentoring, monitoring, and enhancing the communication between school and home, as well as support at home for learning. It is designed to decrease truancy and dropout rates, improve academic achievement, increase school completion, and impact literacy and social skills.

Bringing efforts like this to CPS is key, since only 57 percent of CPS high school students graduate in four years, according to a report of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Within the research project, more than 3,000 students in 24 CPS schools are in the treatment and control groups, with close to 500 students receiving the intervention. The program’s potential spillover effects on peers of students in the program will also be measured by looking at outcomes for the more than 6,000 control students at control schools, where the intervention is not being implemented.

“Professor Guryan’s work on interventions for truant and disengaged elementary school students gives the Chicago Public Schools a rare chance to carefully study the types of support necessary to connect students to school and learning, and to appraise with precision the short- and long-term impact of a structured mentoring program like Check & Connect on school outcomes. In times of austerity and budget deficits, this work is more welcome and necessary than ever. More generally, his research and involvement offer a model of practical applications of academic study to district policy, and of marrying the oft-disconnected worlds of rigorous evaluation and daily reality in disadvantaged urban schools,” states Molly Burke, director of alternative schools and pathways for the Chicago Public Schools.

Tracing the Truancy Project

The program was developed at the University of Minnesota, as a partnership of parents, students, researchers and practitioners. Based on a review of existing studies, the What Works Clearinghouse found that Check & Connect is one of only two intervention programs that help with dropout prevention. What Works is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, created in 2002 with the intent of being a trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education.

In 2009 then-CPS CEO Ron Huberman met multiple times with a University of Chicago Crime Lab and Urban Education Lab research team, which was led by Guryan, Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig and which now includes Amy Claessens (BS98, MA06, PhD08), assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, and Mimi Engel (PhD09), assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

The research team identified the Check & Connect program as a “best practice” for improving students’ engagement in school. “It had strong impacts around absenteeism and truancy,” Claessens says. For Check & Connect to be implemented in the large urban district in Chicago, “there was a lot of work around making sure the program worked the way it had in Minnesota. So far it’s been great.”

The Chicago project is now starting the second year of a two-year intervention. “Students assigned to the program will receive two years of mentoring,” Claessens says. During the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years, another group of students will receive either the Check & Connect intervention or a “lighter touch” variation with only one or two elements of Check & Connect. “The hope is that this work is successful in helping kids to become and stay more connected to school,” Engel says. “The idea is that mentors get to know the kids, figure out the cause of the truancy and help them connect or reconnect with school. Truancy is a tricky problem to solve.”

And it’s an important one to investigate. “Research shows that kids who miss a lot early on are more likely to drop out later. I think Check & Connect should be part of school, and I think it could have meaningful impacts to have an adult whose job is to check in with you,” Claessens says.

Mentors can help students connect to school. “For most kids, it’s about relationships. How do relationships relate to a child’s attendance? The idea is to decrease truancy. If kids are at school more, then there might be increased achievement, increased learning and positive feelings about school,” Claessens says.

Serving Schools

Guryan’s interests in education are wide-ranging, extending beyond Check & Connect to encompass various initiatives aimed at improving graduation rates and decreasing achievement gaps. Guryan is building relationships with school district leaders across the nation, sometimes providing free consulting on data analysis and helping them design rigorous studies of new policies, practices, technology or programs they are planning to implement.

“School districts are constantly trying new things. The idea is to help school districts build evidence about whether the things they’re trying are working. Learning about what works and what doesn’t is crucial for helping resource-constrained school districts across the country,” says Guryan.