What to Do to Support Students Who Are Chronically Absent from School?

Two new reports—from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and from Attendance Works—explore chronic student absenteeism and its consequences for student achievement and graduation.  Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must begin reporting data about students’ chronic absence in their accountability reports.  Attendance Works even posts an online interactive map from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution where a person can find chronic absence data about one’s own school district.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing not just days but also weeks of school.  Attendance Works defines chronic absenteeism as, “missing 10 percent of school—the equivalent of two days every month or 18 days over a 180-day school year.”  While all school districts record students’ absences from school, until recent years most have not tracked each individual student’s accrued absences over the semester or the school year. Now school districts are required to watch and intervene when individual students’ attendance patterns become worrisome.

What is clear is that, while there are a number of ways researchers measure students’ chronic absence from school, the problem is serious:  When students miss too much school, they learn less, they fall behind, and they are more likely to drop out without graduating.  And students who are poor are more likely to miss school.

Writing for Attendance Works, Hedy Chang, Lauren Bauer, and Vaughan Byrnes explain: “Especially hard hit are children who live in poverty, have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or experience homelessness or frequent moves.  When chronic absence reaches high levels in a school or classroom, it can affect every student’s opportunity to learn, because the resulting churn—with students cycling in and out of the classroom—is disruptive for all and hampers teachers’ ability to meet students’ diverse learning needs.”

And before they delve into a data analysis, EPI researchers, Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss summarize past research: “Poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status… changes in adult household composition (e.g. adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g. children looking after siblings)—along with inadequate supports for students within the educational system (e.g. lack of adequate transprtation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.)—are all associated with a greater likelihood of being absent, and particularly with being chronically absent.”

When we think about chronic absence, most of us think about students who cut school to hang out—students who are bored or disaffected.  But other issues are harder to address.  One teacher I know told me about a student who was late every day because she had to wait to come to school until a van came to take her quadriplegic mother to a care center. Another teacher who has been substituting in a huge high school told me he was frustrated because in the five sections of the English class he had to teach every day, it seemed that a different group of students was present each day. It seemed baffling to cope with the churn.

From the University of California at Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute, David Kirp describes a new program in Los Angeles that seems to be paying off: “The Los Angeles Unified School District has invested in a new, low-cost approach to curbing absenteeism that’s been proven to move the needle. It’s a simple, potent idea: Enlist parents as allies in keeping their kids in school.”  Many parents, he writes, are unaware that their children are missing school: “To correct these misperceptions and to enlist parents in keeping kids in school, 190,000 Los Angeles families whose kids met the chronically absent standard in the past will be mailed attendance information five times a year.”  The letters are simple: “Billy has missed more school than his classmates—16 days so far in this school year… Students fall behind when they miss school. …Absences matter and you can help.”  Kirp reports that chronic absenteeism has dropped not only in Los Angeles, but also by 10 or 15 percent in Philadelphia and Chicago after such reporting to parents becomes routine.

The research from EPI and Attendance Works, however, indicates that chronic absenteeism very frequently reflects that students who miss school are facing serious health and family challenges which can be addressed only through additional support by teachers, counselors and social workers to help students find ways to make their own schooling a priority even when other problems intervene.

Two primary school reforms come to mind. The first is to make classes small enough that teachers can really come to know their students and the barriers for students that make school attendance difficult.  This is harder in a middle school or high school, however, where teachers work with likely five classes a day—a total of 125 students even when class size is kept at 25 students.

The benefits of wrap-around, full-service Community Schools (see here or here) become apparent in the context of such challenges.  With medical and dental clinics located in the school, parents don’t have to keep kids out of school because they have forgotten the necessary immunizations. The toothache can be addressed promptly with only an hour away from class. Such schools also employ social workers to help families balance the responsibilities that sometimes put care-giving in conflict with school and to help parents and students address issues like transportation.

These schools are also designed to welcome families warmly and authentically. In Community Schools in Action (Oxford University Press, 2005), the assistant director of the New York Children’s Aid Society National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, Hersilia Mendez describes the role of parent outreach and parent engagement in a Community School: “In its work in Community Schools, the Children’s Aid Society sees parents as assets and key allies, not as burdens; we aim not only to increase the number of parents involved in their children’s education but also to deepen the intensity of their involvement and to encourage greater participation in their children’s future. As we engage parents in skills workshops and advocacy events, we also create a critical link to the home, allowing us to serve and empower whole families… The Children’s Aid Society wanted to erase the mixed invitation that schools often extend to parents—that parents should be involved in their children’s schooling but only on the school’s terms and often in rather menial ways… For an immigrant like me… Public School 5’s warm atmosphere was beyond belief.  The beautifully furnished family room, the smell of fresh coffee, the presence of so many parents at all times, and, in particular, the friendly disposition of the staff were heartwarming. To me, it was an inconceivable atmosphere to find in any school, let alone a New York City public school… The parent involvement model is culturally responsive and provides multiple entry points for meeting parents at their level as well as multiple opportunities to engage with, support, and strengthen the school.” (pp. 42-45)

Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s report card.  The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”

Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

Public Schools Transformed by Stable Leadership, Challenging Curriculum and Caring Relationships

Recently I listened online to a lecture sponsored by the American Educational Research Association in which Dr. Charles Payne, a sociologist and professor of urban education at the University of Chicago explains what public schools can do to help their students thrive academically even despite what we know are the constraints posed when their families and their neighborhoods are extremely poor.  Poverty, Payne says, poses enormous challenges to children’s thriving at school, but if the curriculum is extremely challenging and the children are known by the adults at the school and feel supported by these relationships, many children can thrive academically.

Payne documents his address from the academic research literature, but what might be seen as a case study for his theory of school improvement appeared in Sunday’s NY Times: an article by David Kirp, the University of California at Berkeley public policy professor who has been visiting public schools in the Union Public School District, located in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Beneath the improvements in Union Public School District—how the District has made its curriculum more rigorous and created a web of relationships that support students—Kirp highlights an additional factor that usually gets less attention. The superintendent who transformed and strengthened this school district retired in 2013 after 19 years and the new superintendent isn’t looking to move on.

In contrast to the theory of disruption that has pervaded corporate school reform and that is also at the heart of Betsy DeVos’s belief in privatization is stable, deliberate, and incremental school improvement. Kirp explains: “Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix.  The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to ‘disrupt’ the status quo. The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students.  This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better. Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district.  And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere… with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.”

Christa McAuliffe Elementary boasts a STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering and math—for all students.  Kirp describes a 7-year-old who, like his classmates, has developed an algorithm for a video game. The teacher has prescribed the conditions the algorithm must produce: “(A) cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, ‘Aw.'”  Emily Limm, the director of the STEM program, tells Kirp the district offers STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted: “It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes. Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

Over a decade ago, in 2004, the district also undertook to make its schools full-service, wraparound Community Schools: “These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities—art, music, science, sports, tutoring—that middle-class families routinely provide.  They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.”

Kirp emphasizes the stability for students: “Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps.  For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity… But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.”

You can read Kirp’s article to learn about the improvements in test scores, attendance, and the high school graduation rate.  The important point, in addition to the strong curriculum and the web of personal connections that make all students feel known at school, is that the school district’s accomplishments have not come from some kind of quick turnaround.  Kirp quotes Cathy Burden who led the district for 19 years prior to her retirement in 2013: “None of this happened overnight. We were very intentional—we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic—it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

Reardon Releases New Research on Achievement Gaps: It Isn’t All About “Failing” Schools

“Really,” Stanford education sociologist Sean Reardon told Education Week‘s Sarah Sparks last week, “there are very, very few school districts that serve a large proportion of poor students and that have achievement that’s even at the national average.  That suggests we may not be able to just ‘school reform’ our way out of that kind of inequality.”

A revolutionary statement in an era when, for fifteen years now, we have been punishing the school districts that serve our nation’s poorest students.

Ohio, my state, and many others have implemented a policy that grades school districts by their students’ test scores.  The school districts that serve poor children are getting “Fs” and for these districts, other kinds of punishments for school failure soon follow—closing schools, expanding charters, giving kids vouchers to leave so-called failing public schools altogether.

Sparks reports that in the interview, Reardon adds: “It’s not clear we’ve figured it out.  There’s some deep… problems that we as a society haven’t faced up to yet.”  Sparks explains that new research by Reardon found that Detroit, among the poorest cities, is one of very few poor school districts where there is virtually no achievement gap. Reardon explains: “Detroit is not the poster child for reducing the achievement gap.  The achievement gap is zero in Detroit largely because everyone’s doing really poorly, not because black students are doing particularly well.”

If we look at Reardon’s new paper and in the context of the new NAEP scores released last week that show dropping achievement and the achievement gap widening among high school seniors, it is evident that the new research begins to explore the issue that test-and-punish school accountability has failed to address: whether achievement gaps are created by the quality of schools themselves.  Reardon introduces the new paper: “One of the central sets of questions in the sociology of education for the last 50 years—since the publication of the Coleman Report—concerns the primary causes of racial and ethnic achievement gaps and disparities in educational outcomes more generally.  To what extent are these disparities the result of racial/ethnic differences in socioeconomic family background and circumstances, and to what extent are they the result of racial/ethnic differences in school quality?  Put differently, to what extent should racial/ethnic disparities in educational outcomes be attributed to institutional features of the US educational system…?”

In the NY Times, Motoko Rich describes Reardon’s data analysis: “The new analysis surveys data from about 200 million standardized math and reading tests given to third through eighth graders in every state between 2009 and 2012.  Although different states administer different exams, Mr. Reardon and his team were able to compare the state results with scores on federal tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress in order to develop a consistent scale by which to compare districts.  Mr. Reardon said the analysis should not be used to rank districts or schools.”

Reardon is also at pains to insist that the new study documents correlations, not cause and effect, and he cautions that the new research raises more questions than it answers: “Our findings should not be taken as causal estimates; as we argue here, the forces producing racial/ethnic inequality in educational outcomes are complex, interactive, and self-reinforcing….”  That being said, Reardon does identify several conclusions:

  1. “Most of the variation in district achievement gaps lies within, rather than between, states.  State-level processes do not appear to be a dominant force in shaping patterns of racial/ethnic academic achievement gaps.”
  2. “(O)f the several thousand school districts we analyze, which enroll almost 90% of all black and Hispanic students in the US, there are but a handful where the achievement gap is near zero.”
  3. “(R)oughly half the variance in local achievement gaps can be explained by racial/ethnic disparities in socioeconomic status.”
  4. “There are clearly factors other than racial/ethnic socioeconomic disparities at play in generating academic achievement gaps.  Chief among these factors is racial segregation… In particular, achievement gaps are larger, all else equal, in places where black and Hispanic students attend higher poverty schools than their white peers.”
  5. “Achievement gaps are larger, on average, in districts and metropolitan areas with higher levels of parental education…. (O)ne possible explanation for this is the possibility that socioeconomic disparities—and corresponding disparities in social capital, social networks, and access to school district leaders—are more salient in competitive, high resource communities.  Another possibility is that social psychological processes that inhibit minority students’ performance, such as stereotype threat, are particularly strong in the most affluent places….”
  6. “(W)hile many of our measures of segregation are correlated with achievement gaps, the one that consistently remains statistically significant in our multivariate models is racial differences in exposure to poverty.  This is in line with the argument that race, per se, is not the causal factor linking segregation to worse outcomes for minority students.”
  7. “(A)mong all the covariates included in our models, our measures of school quality explain the smallest amount of the variance in achievement gaps.”

In a companion paper, Reardon warns: “Test scores and academic performance more generally are shaped by many factors other than schools.  They are shaped by children’s families, their home environments, their neighborhood contexts, their child care and pre-school experiences, afterschool experiences, and by their schools.  Knowing that children in a particular community scored higher, on average, than those in another community does not tell us that the schools were better in that community.  Average test scores are more appropriately interpreted as a measure of the educational opportunities available to children living within a district.”

Keeping that caveat in mind, however, in the primary paper, Reardon explains: “(M)any school districts have achievement gaps that are larger or smaller than would be expected, given their socioeconomic conditions and segregation levels.”  One primary example cited in Reardon’s study is Union City, New Jersey, the subject of Berkeley public policy professor David Kirp’s fascinating book, Improbable Scholars. Reardon would not, of course, jump from his correlation study that highlights school achievement that beats the odds among poor children in Union City to offering a prescription for school improvement.  It is, however, interesting to look at David Kirp’s portrayal of the many ways Union City, a high achieving and very poor school district, has worked to beat the odds.

Kirp describes the strategies in Union City that he believes have turned around achievement as measured by test scores.  Union City empowered its teachers to re-shape a bilingual curriculum to serve its primarily Hispanic students. School administrators trusted teams of teachers to collaborate. Kirp summarizes reforms he observed in Union City:  “High-quality, full-day preschool for all children starts at age three. Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language. Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English. The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next.  Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems.  Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance.  The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.  The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of abrazos—caring—which generates trust.”  (Improbable Scholars, p. 9)

The emphasis in Union City has been on support-and-improve, not test-and-punish.

New York City Has Created a Model Pre-K Program—Affordable, Accessible, High Quality

A new report from Padres & Jovenes Unidos in Denver, Colorado names the classic problems that block families’ ability to enroll their children in preschool.  First there are not enough high-quality pre-K programs in the poorest parts of Denver to provide universal access to pre-Kindergarten.  Second is the matter of affordability: “In Denver, the average annual cost of pre-K in a center, for just one child is $11,477… While there are several sources of funds that can assist Denver parents in covering the cost of pre-K, each has significant gaps that prevent it from coming close to meeting the financial needs of all the families….”  And finally there is the uneven quality of the programs: “In particular, parents are experiencing difficulties around inadequate language instruction… and the overuse of harsh disciplinary measures such as suspensions and expulsions….”  The authors conclude: “(I)n Denver, while virtually every child in predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods attends pre-K, only a small fraction of children in predominantly Latino, lower-income neighborhoods of Southwest Denver are enrolled in pre-K.”

And in Ohio, Policy Matters explains:  “(J)ust 4 percent of 4-year-olds from low-income families are enrolled in preschool, compared with 29 percent nationally.  Not only is Ohio behind most of the nation in preschool and childcare support, differing eligibility standards between the two programs means many kids miss out on the opportunities.  Some parents can’t send their kids to half-day preschool because they don’t qualify for childcare assistance for the other half day.  Between underinvestment and misalignment, Ohio is falling behind in developing the workforce of the future…..”  “In this budget (2016-17), Ohio will spend almost what we did during the recession (2008-2009) and less than we did during the budget for 2010 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).”

While these stories represent examples of states and localities struggling to fund and provide pre-school education, David Kirp’s piece in Sunday’s NY Times tells a very different story in New York City:  “In 2013, Bill de Blasio campaigned for mayor on a promise of universal pre-K.  Two years later, New York City enrolls more children in full-day pre-K than any state except Georgia, and its preschool enrollment exceeds the total number of students in San Francisco or Boston.”  Today preschools provide publicly funded programs—with no charge to families—for 68,547 of New York City’s children.  Kirp continues: “In New York, the percentage of 4-year-olds in prekindergarten is essentially the same in every neighborhood, in part because the city made an effort to attract families across the demographic spectrum.”  The city sent recruiters door-to-door.  To set up a program that is accessible in every neighborhood,  the city recruited 2,000 teachers, opened 3,000 classrooms, and vetted 300 community providers as partners.

What about quality in a program that folds in public and non-profit providers?  “The teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree.  They receive in-class tutoring, and help from social workers.  The curriculum has been well vetted and the classrooms are well stocked.  There’s a spot in a full-day class for every 4-year-old.  The city is spending $10,200 for each child….”  Effective coaching, writes Kirp, is driving quality and ensuring that the curriculum is shaped around the way young children learn: through play.

Here is how Kirp describes a lesson on apples at Ira’s, a daycare in Briarwood, Queens: “A lesson on apples at Ira’s incorporates everything from art to arithmetic.  The children draw apples, copy the names of the different varieties, peel and slice them, determine whether the weight of an apple changes when it’s boiled, build an orchard with blocks, ‘sell’ apple pies at the classroom bakery and examine slices under a microscope.  The youngsters work in small groups, and the teacher moves among them, asking questions and listening closely to determine who needs help.”  While teachers are being taught to incorporate play everywhere, the particular focus of the day is up to the providers.  Kirp describes one preschool that incorporates Mandarin Chinese every day.

New York City’s pre-Kindergarten programs are affordable; they do not charge families tuition.  They are accessible (and well attended) in neighborhoods across the city’s five boroughs. And the city demonstrates a commitment to improving quality.

New York City has shown what can accomplished through public investment, intense effort, and planning.  States like Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and the legislature have continued to reduce state taxes, can see the impact on pre-K and on state-subsidized childcare.  Policy Matters elaborates: “Funding for early care and education jumped in the 2016-2017 budget, providing a significant increase in pre-K slots from a very low starting point.  Yet funding across the system, which dropped in the years following the recession, is not yet restored to previous peaks.  Pre-K enrollment has plunged since 2000.  Public childcare (a different program in Ohio than Pre-K) serves more kids, but with less money, meaning quality has dropped.  It’s much harder to qualify for help in Ohio than in other states.”