Taking attendance

As districts across the country try to drive down absenteeism, New York City leads the way

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students participate in a peer mentoring program at Cypress Hills Collegiate Preparatory School.

As Anna Diaz started her sophomore year of high school, simply making it to class each day was an ordeal.

Her home life was sometimes chaotic, her mom was out of work, and she wrestled with depression. On top of that, after a summer of bouncing from hotel to hotel, her family relocated to Queens, lengthening her commute to her Brooklyn high school to nearly two hours. As a result, she rarely made it to first period at Cypress Hills Collegiate Preparatory School, and missed roughly 15 percent of her sophomore year.

“I was going through a lot,” recalled Diaz, now a senior at Cypress Hills. She was hardly alone: That year, 42 percent of her peers were deemed “chronically absent” because they missed at least 10 percent of the school year or about 18 days.

Under pressure to improve attendance, the school has dug deeper into student data, set individual goals for students, reached out to families, and created incentives like trips to museums or theme parks to reward improvement. It’s also tried to make the school more appealing to students — for instance, by establishing a mentorship program that pairs freshmen with older students and working to improve teachers’ lessons — under the theory that students need a reason to show up.

The strategy is paying off: Last school year, 28 percent of students were chronically absent, down from 61 percent in 2014.

“It’s really an overall school approach,” said Principal Amy Yager.

In recent years, New York City’s education department has been paying more attention to chronic absenteeism, which is linked to lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system. Beyond being a serious risk factor for students, officials see chronic absenteeism as a barometer of a school’s ability to create a safe, stimulating space that entices students to attend.

New York City isn’t alone: Roughly three-quarters of states — including New York — plan to include the measure as one of the ways they evaluate schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If you want achievement every year you have to have attendance almost every day,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that has pushed for a greater emphasis on absenteeism. New York City, she added, was “one of the first [districts] in the nation to realize they had a problem.”

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has made improved attendance a central goal of its two most ambitious — and expensive — school-improvement efforts.

Since 2014, the city education department has transformed over 200 schools into “community schools” designed to remove obstacles that can lead to chronic absenteeism — anything from severe asthma and mental health issues, to a lack of clean clothes. The schools were outfitted with medical and dental services, nutrition and fitness programs, tutoring, job training and — in some cases — washers and dryers.

Among them are 94 low-performing schools (including Cypress Hills) that are also part of de Blasio’s $582 million “Renewal” turnaround program, which provides coordinators to manage a host of new support services and tools to track student-level attendance data.

Officials say that broader school improvement efforts — everything from adding evening classes for parents or sending in teacher coaches — should ultimately boost attendance. But they have also zeroed in on specific strategies for drawing students into school.

Community and Renewal schools use customized software that pulls student attendance data out of creaky city databases, allowing school attendance teams to quickly identify which students are racking up lots of absences. Then team members, including nonprofit staffers brought in by the city, visit the homes of chronically absent students, call their parents, or set up counseling sessions.

At P.S. 61 in the Bronx, school officials have started a “walking school bus” where volunteers meet chronically absent students at neighborhood checkpoints then walk them to school. The effort helps students whose parents have health problems or otherwise struggle to drop them off, said Stacey Campo, P.S. 61’s community school director, and “it’s creating some excitement about coming to school.”

City officials have also experimented with sending home postcards that show how many days a student has missed compared to the school’s average. The simple intervention, which the city tried at 52 schools, helped drive down absenteeism, according to Chris Caruso, the education department’s executive director of community schools.

The percentage of students considered chronically absent at Renewal schools compared to the citywide rate. (Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Caruso said that because academic measures like test scores take longer to budge, a school’s chronic absenteeism rate gives an early indication of whether turnaround efforts are taking hold.

Though the Renewal program has had mixed success raising test scores and graduation rates, the share of students who are chronically absent at those schools has fallen by just under 8 percentage points since 2015. (Still, the schools’ 36 percent chronic absenteeism rate is significantly higher than the 26 percent citywide rate.)

“This is generally a pretty sticky measure that’s difficult to move,” Caruso said, “and we’re seeing real progress.”

In the past, schools had little sense of how many students were missing many days of class.

As recently as ten years ago, most schools focused on the percentage of students who showed up on a given day — known as average daily attendance — not how many days individual students were missing.

That made it difficult to identify students who were gone a few days each month — an easily overlooked occurrence that can balloon into a major problem. It also left schools with a potentially deceptive statistic: A third of students could be chronically absent, yet a school’s average daily attendance could still be 90 percent.

“The entire attendance system was measuring the wrong thing,” said Kim Nauer, the education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “They had no way of seeing whether any individual kid was missing too much school and putting them at risk.”

In 2008, Nauer published a report that was among the first to reveal the scale of New York City’s chronic absenteeism problem. At the time, over 28 percent of students were chronically absent.

Partly in response to the report, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a series of initiatives to combat absenteeism.

The most effective intervention was pairing chronically absent students with “Success Mentors” — school personnel or volunteers who regularly checked in with students and helped coax them back to school. One study found that students with mentors gained nearly two weeks of school on average and were more likely to remain in school three years later. Today, 115 community schools continue to use that approach, a number city officials said would likely increase to 150 this school year.

Under de Blasio, chronic absenteeism has continued on a gradual downward path that began with Bloomberg. Last school year the rate ticked up slightly to 26 percent, but that is still about 2 percentage points lower than when de Blasio took office.

Still, individual schools often struggle to combat chronic absenteeism, which largely stems from forces beyond their control.

At P.S. 211 in the Bronx, for instance, school staffers repeatedly tried to convince a mother with substance abuse issues that she shouldn’t keep her two children at home to help her with laundry and other chores.

“We would make connections with mom and things would go great for a week,” said Jorge Blau, who helps oversee the attendance program, “and then we’d have to start over again.”

Blau, who works for The Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit embedded in the school, said his team was able to help reduce the number of days the students were absent from about 40 down to 20 or so — an improvement, but still a serious threat to their learning.

“Did they come to school more? Yes,” Blau said. “But we didn’t get them over the hump.”

more money more learning

Does money matter for schools? Why one researcher says the question is ‘essentially settled’

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Educators wearing red and holding signs rally for more education funding at the Colorado Capitol on April 26, 2018.

“Throwing money at the problem” has long gotten a bad rap in education.

“The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said last year.

But a string of recent studies have undermined that perspective. Now, a new review of research drives another nail into the argument’s coffin.

The review looks closely at 13 studies focused on schools nationwide or in multiple states. Twelve found that spending more money meant statistically significant benefits for students, including rising test scores and high school graduation rates.

“By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled,” Northwestern economist Kirabo Jackson concludes. “Researchers should now focus on understanding what kinds of spending increases matter the most.”

In the paper, which was released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been peer-reviewed, Jackson looks at attempts to pin down the effects of school spending. This is critical, because policymakers like DeVos often focus on correlations between spending and test scores.

The results of the 13 studies are remarkably consistent, even though they span different time periods.

For instance, students saw big gains in school districts where spending jumped between 1972 and 1990, one study found. A 10 percent increase in spending across a student’s 12 years in public school led students to complete an additional one-third of a year of school and boosted their adult wages by 7 percent. The gains were largest for low-income kids.

Studies of more recent changes tell a similarly encouraging story. States that increased school funding between 1990 and 2011 saw substantial gains on federal exams soon after, another analysis found.

A separate paper found that 12 percent increases in school spending boosted graduation rates by several percentage points

And another study found that cutting funding in the wake of the Great Recession hurt student test scores and graduation rates.

Jackson identifies just one national paper without clear positive effects.

“Money used wisely clearly matters,” said Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M school finance researcher  who praised Jackson’s study. “One of the takeaways from this newer literature might be that schools are more wise than we thought.”

Studies looking at single states have also found largely encouraging results. One recent study in New York took advantage of a quirk in the state’s funding formula that allowed certain districts with falling enrollment to get extra funding. Those extra dollars led to higher scores on state exams, it found.

Another New York study found that a 2 to 3 percent increase in funding led to a 0.5 to 0.8 percentage point decline in the high school dropout rate.

Head over to Ohio, and the results look similar: passing a funding ballot measure caused a boost in test scores. Three separate papers in Michigan, as well as a study in Massachusetts, found positive results, too. And Jackson’s overview may actually understate the evidence, as it does not include recent research in California and Texas, which also found gains from additional funding.

The only state study that showed unrestricted funding increases did not result in any improvements was a 2003 paper looking at Kentucky.

The pattern is consistent with other recent research overviews, but it’s a sharp departure from an older one by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who has frequently testified on behalf of states defending against lawsuits aimed at increasing school funding. His 1997 review looked at studies conducted before 1995, and found that only 27 percent of the results showed statistically gains from additional school spending.

Jackson argues that Hanushek’s review — which was vigorously challenged even at the time — is dated and relies on studies with crude methodologies.

Hanushek concedes that, but says his view on the matter is largely unchanged. The gains shown in the studies in Jackson’s paper differ in size, he said. And he noted a similar correlation to ones that DeVos cites: as spending has increased over the past several decades, scores on 12th grade federal tests have remained largely stagnant.

“The variation in the results that you get indicate quite clearly if I want to fix [a school district] and I just drop money on them, they may or may not get better,” Hanushek said. “It’s how the money is spent more than how much.”

Still, even Hanushek acknowledges there is a case for spending more money in schools.

“I think we’re underinvesting in education in the U.S. and I think it’s pretty serious,” he said. “But I don’t want to just do what we’ve done in the past and hope for something different.”

Jackson’s results are a bit murkier when examining state spending that is earmarked for specific uses. School construction spending, for example, led to gains in some cases but no clear effects in others. A trio of New York City studies found that federal Title I funds targeted at disadvantaged students did not have clear positive effects.

Jackson’s paper also does not review research on spending increases to pay for smaller class sizes, teacher salary increases, tutoring programs, or school turnaround efforts. A number of turnaround initiatives with big price tags have yielded disappointing results.

On balance, Taylor of Texas A&M says that the research points in a clear direction — though it still may not persuade skeptics.

“There were some circles that never bought the premise that money doesn’t matter,” she said. “There are other circles that will never accept the premise that money does matter.”

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”