Two-thirds of Detroit students missed at least one of every 10 school days last year.
That’s one day every two weeks, or more than three weeks between the first day of school and the start of summer vacation.
That’s at least half a year of learning over five years — half a grade of instruction lost for roughly 60,000 students in Detroit’s charter schools and city district.
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As absences pile up, masses of individual students — especially students experiencing poverty — are consigned to a demoralizing cycle of academic catch-up, asked to keep up with other students while receiving fewer lessons.
“School is hard enough, but then when you have to catch up, it’s overwhelming, and they just give up,” said Janine Scott, a math teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District who serves on Chalkbeat’s reader advisory board.
Absenteeism across Michigan has risen to alarming new heights, driven in part by quarantine policies. Half a million students were chronically absent statewide last year. The problem is especially acute in Detroit and other cities statewide, where child poverty, unaffordable housing, and patchy transportation fuel some of the nation’s highest rates of chronic absence.
Across Detroit and the state, schools have tried to solve the problem. They’ve hired attendance agents, set up alerts for students at risk of becoming chronically absent, and created messaging campaigns about the cost of missing school. But many of these efforts are small-scale, or built on the notion that absences mostly reflect families’ motivation to attend school, rather than social barriers that research shows are the drivers of absenteeism.
At the same time, schools have gotten little help addressing a problem that is far bigger than them, experts say, one whose roots lie in society-wide failures of housing, employment, and public health.
“We can’t see it just as a schools issue,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national initiative that aims to reduce chronic absenteeism. “Some of what chronic absence reflects is economic inequities in our societies, lack of access to healthcare, flexibility in work, lack of access to decent transportation.”
The scope of missed school days
For the most part, no one was able to escape the rise in missed school days. As the pandemic closed Michigan schools and sent millions of children to learn at home, the rates of chronic absenteeism, when students miss 10% of the school year, shot up across all demographics.
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But even before the pandemic, Michigan struggled to get students to come to school. Cities, in particular, had high rates of absenteeism, with Detroit’s rate topping the list of all large cities in the U.S.
The spike in absenteeism during the pandemic prompted state officials to sound alarms.
“I encourage parents and districts to work together to focus on student attendance so that they can make the best use of the time that is available to them for student instruction,” said state Superintendent Michael Rice in a statement this fall.
Before the pandemic, Detroit had committed to a multi-pronged effort to reduce absenteeism. The district’s 2018-19 attendance plan outlined a holistic approach to improving attendance through wraparound services for students, hiring attendance agents, and partnerships with community organizations. By the end of that school year, in part due to those efforts, the district reduced chronic absenteeism to 62%, down from 70% in the 2017-18 school year.
But the pandemic derailed those efforts. Last year, the rate rose to 79%.
That alarming trend held across the city and state.
Detroit charter schools had a chronic absenteeism rate of 58%. In the Lansing school district, it was 90%. In Flint, 80%. In Pontiac, 72%. In Eastpointe, 71%.
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“Chronic absenteeism is now the big elephant in every room,” said Sonya Mays, a Detroit school board member, who was elected in 2016 as local control returned to the district. With staggering rates in front of school leaders across the state and country, Mays hopes it will contribute to more substantive discussions.
“I’m not super interested in a blame conversation,” she said. “I’m much more interested in unpacking the reasons that that number is so high and using data as much as we can. I do think that there still is a bit more anecdotal decision making than I would care for, not just in our district but broadly in all school districts.”
Absenteeism, with its obvious consequences for learning, has troubled educators for as long as there have been schools in the United States.
Yet public understanding of the issue is rife with misconceptions that undermine solutions.
Take this seemingly simple question: Who is responsible for children’s attendance at school?
American popular culture, from Huckleberry Finn to Ferris Bueller, gives a simple answer: students and their parents. In turn, some efforts to improve school attendance in Michigan treat absenteeism as a choice that can be influenced with carrots or sticks.
But absences seldom boil down to a decision to skip school, experts say. Interviews with parents and researchers show that families generally understand the importance of regular attendance and do their best to get their children to class.
Instead, absences often result from painful but rational choices between a family’s basic well-being and attending school. Problems with housing, health, work, or transportation can quickly spiral into a crisis for a family that lacks money or a social support system. Even if attendance is a top priority, it does not trump the need for shelter, food, safety, and reliable child care.
“They go to school every day unless it’s impossible,” said Jasmine Person, whose three children attend Bow Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. Transportation is a challenge for Person, who lives far enough from Bow that her children aren’t eligible to be picked up by the school bus, and who sometimes struggles to cover the cost of fuel.
“If I don’t have gas money, it’s hard to get them to school and also get to work,” she said.
Parents who can’t bring their children to school because of car problems, an eviction, or a health crisis likely won’t change their behavior simply by changing their minds, said Larry Simmons, director of the Brightmoor Alliance.
“This level of chronic absence has a systemic root,” Simmons said. “It’s poverty and the consequences of poverty. When the car breaks down, that crisis isn’t easily accommodated because families’ resources are so thin.”
Simmons leads an attendance initiative called Every School Day Counts, which is backed by major philanthropies and nonprofits in Detroit.
In 2019, the group embarked on a messaging campaign designed to convince parents of the importance of attendance.
It didn’t work.
“Parents actually were resentful of the campaign because they felt like we were blaming them,” Simmons said.
The initiative has pivoted, Simmons said, to working directly with five Detroit schools. They are helping the schools pilot new programs to improve attendance with the goal of sharing their most promising findings with educators across the city.
Simmons is particularly optimistic about a plan to expand after-school programming, which encourages attendance for working families who can’t pick their children up from school until after 5 p.m.
In fact, absenteeism is widespread. In Michigan, hundreds of thousands of students miss at least 18 school days every year.
All those absences have catastrophic results.
One Baltimore-based study found that students who were otherwise similar — in the quality of their teacher, prior academic achievement, behavior, effort, and demographics — were less likely to close test score gaps in math if they were chronically absent.
A 2008 study in Chicago found that eighth graders’ absences predicted their success in the next school year eight times better than their test scores.
“We can’t educate children the way we want to and we can’t see the student achievement that we want to see if students aren’t consistently in school,” said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, Michigan’s largest school district.
In the Detroit district, Vitti said, students perform significantly better against grade-level standards when they miss fewer days.
In classrooms where students are frequently absent, teachers must make tough decisions about whether to slow their instruction down for students who missed class.
“We’ve got some kids who still come to school every day, we have some kids who are doing everything that we’ve asked them to do,” Scott said. “And it’s not fair (to them) to hold up our lessons.”
Why absenteeism is so difficult to solve
Reducing chronic absenteeism in Michigan can seem like a steep uphill climb.
Think of the powerful Detroiters — emergency managers, celebrities, superintendents, philanthropists — who set out over the last decade to get more kids to class but barely put a dent in the problem.
Think of the consensus among researchers that absenteeism is driven by social problems that have outlasted decades of reform efforts in Michigan.
“Chronic absenteeism is a complex problem with no one solution,” said Sarah Lenhoff, a professor of education at Wayne State University and director of the Detroit Partnership for Education Equity & Research, which has published numerous studies of attendance in Detroit.
PEER studies point out that Detroit is a “uniquely challenging context” for absenteeism because the conditions that researchers have linked statistically with absenteeism — things like asthma prevalence, poverty, and residential vacancies — are all present to an unusually high degree in the city.
“Reducing absenteeism in Detroit, with some of the most challenging structural conditions to attendance, requires more from schools, communities, the state, and other agencies,” Lenhoff said.
While she focuses on Detroit, many of the same headwinds show up in high-absenteeism communities across Michigan.
If nothing is done, half a million frequently absent students in Michigan will have “unequal opportunities to learn,” as one researcher put it. These students will struggle to make normal progress, much less make up for falling behind during the pandemic.
Chang, the Attendance Works leader who has worked extensively in Detroit, argues that responsibility for lackluster attendance needs to be as broad as the problem.
“It takes all of us,” she said.
Getting at the root of the problem
A long list of root causes underlies high rates of chronic absenteeism.
The list of potential solutions is long, too.
Some are already being put into practice as the Detroit district expands efforts to increase attendance. DPSCD has begun to work to strengthen relationships with families and help them navigate barriers to attendance. Officials are helping parents manage evictions and pay power bills, and a new district office distributes dry goods and school supplies.
The district has also begun to increase its focus on after-school programming, which has been shown to improve school day attendance over the past two decades.
But to some, the school district’s range of solutions can only do so much. Detroit Superintendent Vitti, while touting DPSCD’s recent efforts, believes chronic absenteeism warrants greater enforcement of truancy laws.
“Our role is to create an environment where students want to come,” he said. “But there is a point where there has to be more accountability and I think that is a city, really, a county function at the prosecutor’s level.”
A revamp of Detroit’s school transportation policies, too, could have great ramifications for student attendance. DPSCD currently provides yellow bus service to students who are attending their neighborhood school and live a certain distance away from the school.
The district also pays the city to provide free rides on DDOT buses to all high school students. While parents rely on that solution, DDOT’s bus routes and schedule are often misaligned with families’ transportation needs. Again, student ridership of city buses isn’t tracked. And bus routes don’t seem to account for families’ preferences or school locations.
Improving health services — both mental and physical — for students can also improve absenteeism, Lenhoff said. The same goes for reducing suspensions, which keep students out of school and are included in absenteeism statistics.
Child poverty, which is intertwined with absenteeism, is itself a solvable problem. During the pandemic, increased Child Tax Credit payments from the federal government sent hundreds of extra dollars a month to families, leading child poverty rates to decline even as much of the economy ground to a halt. In other words, giving people money helps, experts say. But the increased payments have stopped, and Congress hasn’t moved to renew them.
“I would argue that the best attendance policy that could possibly be passed would be for the federal government to reinstate the federal Child Tax Credit,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a researcher at Poverty Solutions, a University of Michigan think tank.
To better understand the problems driving absenteeism, experts say we need data that show why students are absent. For instance, we know that chronic absence was up in 2021-22, but not how much of that increase is due to illness or quarantines.
“We just need to, in my opinion, quantify as best as possible what those drivers (of chronic absenteeism) are, so we can really develop a plan to improve school attendance,” Mays said.
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at email@example.com.