Executive Summary

Autumn typically marks a new beginning for the city’s public schools. This fall, the winds of change are especially brisk, as leaders at every level of the school system are being challenged to think and act anew in addressing the effects of income inequality on academic performance. As this report went to press, City Hall was announcing funds for some 45 new community schools—intensive partnerships of educators and health and human services providers that are intended to help typically very low-income students thrive, scholastically and socially. They will be the first of a projected 100 new community schools Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to launch in his first term. The community schools initiative occupies a crucial part of the de Blasio administration’s overall education strategy. Like the push for universal all-day Pre-K education and the planned increase in after-school programs for middle school students, community schools are intended to help close the book on the bleak “tale of two cities” de Blasio decried in his 2013 mayoral campaign. Community schools also mark a sharp departure from the education philosophy of the Bloomberg administration, which stressed standards, accountability and leadership in improving classroom results, and which had little patience with anything that smacked of making poverty “an excuse” for schools that lagged. Nevertheless, both philosophies converge when addressing one major issue: reducing the city’s shockingly high rate of chronic student absenteeism. The Bloomberg administration’s effort in this area were inspired by a pioneering 2008 report by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, which found that more than approximately 90,000 elementary-level students—more than 23 percent of system-wide enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade—were absent for at least 10 percent of the total school year (some 18 days or more of classes, depending on the year). As then-City Councilman de Blasio pointed out, until absenteeism is reduced, no other school reforms make sense. And now the first round of Mayor de Blasio’s community schools initiative is being launched with state education funds earmarked for reducing absenteeism.


This new report, A Better Picture of Poverty, achieves two goals. First, it updates and refines the Center’s groundbreaking research from six years ago on chronic absenteeism in elementary schools. While chronic absenteeism is an important issue for all students, and is even more prevalent among middle school and high school students, the Center has remained focused on elementary students because they have the most to lose from a bad start on their education—and our research finds that it is easier to change their attendance behavior at this age, since kids and parents tend to be more available and interested in support schools might offer.

We found that despite welcome progress since 2008, in far too many schools very large numbers of students are still chronically absent. The number of elementary school chronic absentees has gone down substantially since our report, from 23 percent of K to 5 students in 2009 to 19 percent in 2013. The Bloomberg administration’s successes notwithstanding, system-wide some 87,000 children from grades K to 5 were chronically absent in the 2012–13 school year. We also found an uneven pattern of success in the Bloomberg focus on absenteeism. In some schools, relatively inexpensive reforms made a substantial difference; in other schools, they weren’t sufficient, and something more was clearly needed.

In fact, our research into 748 elementary and K to 8 schools identifies nearly 130 that struggle with what in this report we define as “persistent chronic absenteeism.” They are schools where, on average, at least one-third of students have missed 10 percent or more of classes—the equivalent of almost a month of school days—for five consecutive school years. (In 33 schools, average chronic absenteeism was more than 40 percent over these five years.) We’ve focused on such endemic absenteeism in the early grades because of the clearly pernicious effects it has on students’ academic achievement, both immediate and long term. Persistent chronic absenteeism, for example, contributes to the dishearteningly slight success that students in such schools have had meeting the state’s new, academically rigorous Common Core learning standards. In the 2012–13 school year, only about 11 percent of students at schools with persistent chronic absenteeism passed Common Core–aligned math and reading tests, compared with a pass rate of more than 30 percent at other elementary and K to 8 schools citywide.

Second, and significantly, we’ve also looked at these absenteeism-endemic schools through the lens of what we characterize as a “total risk load” of social and educational factors in the schools. Our goal: To identify New York City’s “truly disadvantaged” public schools. This is a concept brought forward by researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (who expanded on the term by the renowned urban sociologist William Julius Wilson). Some urban schools serve students and their families who face the heaviest misery and hardship imposed by poverty and family dysfunction, and these are typically in neighborhoods most bereft of the reserves of community “social capital” that can offset poverty’s worst effects. They are, in short, prime candidates for the de Blasio administration’s community schools effort.

Inspired by recent research on truly disadvantaged public schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, we devised a risk load instrument of 18 salient indicators from census data and other sources. We wanted to go beyond the yardsticks commonly used to measure poverty in the schools. When, for example, some 80 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, such familiar statistical brushes paint with strokes far too broad to be very useful.