Recommendations from the Field

A groundbreaking 2008 report by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School cast a penetrating light on the then-underappreciated but shockingly widespread problem of chronic absenteeism in the city’s public schools. It found that chronic absenteeism--defined as being missing from school for at least 10 percent of the academic year--was particularly widespread among the city’s lowest-income students, hindering their success in school.

This new report updates and refines that original research. It shows that despite measurable progress in recent years, a dispiritingly high 19 percent of elementary-grade students are still chronically absent from school. Moreover, it describes what we for the first time define as “persistent chronic absenteeism”—widespread absenteeism that has continued for at least five consecutive school years, a problem plaguing nearly 130 schools with elementary-level students. The report shows that schools facing such endemic absenteeism are also typically what we term “truly disadvantaged,” burdened by high risk loads associated with deep and abiding poverty and hampered by a paucity of offsetting social capital. It describes efforts to reduce absenteeism under the administration of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg. It also indicates how current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s community schools initiative can take up the dual challenge of increasing school attendance and relieving the burdens that poverty imposes on students in truly disadvantaged schools.

In the six years since our first report, a new factor—the adoption of the tough Common Core learning standards—has added increased urgency to these tasks. From the earliest grade levels, the Common Core sets a demanding academic pace and requires steadily more with each passing year from students facing rigorous new standardized state tests. As this new report indicates, there’s little hope of helping students in our truly disadvantaged schools succeed in their Common Core defined studies without reducing persistent chronic absenteeism and addressing the social and academic factors that abet such endemic absenteeism. Indeed, in the Common Core era, the prospects for academic success are slight for any chronically absent student in any school in our city.

This report identifies three principal and complementary approaches to addressing these challenges:

  • Continue and refine the absenteeism reduction work done by the Bloomberg administration between 2010 and 2013;
  • Use the new yardstick of persistent chronic absenteeism to guide efforts to help students in the city’s truly disadvantaged schools, through the community schools initiative and by other means; and
  • Adopt practical school-level reforms to reduce absenteeism that can be adopted in all schools, not just those that are truly disadvantaged across the city.

RECOMMENDATION 1: Continue the work of the Bloomberg administration's Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School EngagementCity Hall, the New York City Department of Education, and education practitioners and researchers learned a great deal during this three-year project, which was inspired by the 2008 report of the Center for New York City Affairs. The task force’s efforts demonstrated that in many cases, relatively low-cost investments in reducing absenteeism can pay off. Often enough, progress was achieved by simply identifying the students who were chronically absent in a school, and connecting them to adults committed to paying attention to them and getting them to school. Such progress meant not only improved attendance; it also often translated into higher student academic achievement.

RECOMMENDATION 2: Use the city's interconnected data systems to identify schools facing persistently high levels of chronic absenteeism and the risk factors associated with deep poverty: The research at the heart of this report finds a strong correlation between persistent chronic absenteeism (schools in which a third or more of elementary-grade students were not present for at least 10 percent of their school days on average over five years) and high risk load schools (those with at least 12 of the 18 risk load factors we identified, using publicly available data sets). This was, however, only a preliminary effort; city officials should continue this research, and refine it by using the more exacting and enlightening information available from city agency databases. The city should use this information to target more intense and focused supports to these schools.

RECOMMENDATION 3: Through the community schools initiative or other means, address the health and social needs of students in truly disadvantaged schools that have high levels of persistent chronic absenteeism and high risk load numbers. The reality is that many truly disadvantaged schools may lack the administrative capacity they need to be included in the first wave of the city’s new community schools. City officials must nevertheless either provide supportive resources that would allow these schools to become community schools or devise alternative strategies for meeting the often overwhelming health, familial and psycho-social needs of their students. The city could, for example, take a page from former Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew’s playbook and revisit how he designated high-needs schools to be part of a virtual “Chancellor’s District” receiving top-level administrative attention. A similar classification now would, at the very least, send the message that truly disadvantaged schools are a top citywide priority at the Department of Education’s Tweed Courthouse offices.

RECOMMENDATION 4: Use City Hall's new "Children's Cabinet" to enlist and coordinate the work of all relevant city agencies in addressing the needs of students in truly disadvantaged schools. For innovation in city government to thrive, good ideas and good intentions alone aren’t enough; institutional muscle also matters. The de Blasio administration’s “Children’s Cabinet” can provide such muscle. Consisting of all city agencies relevant to the community schools effort, the cabinet reports directly to Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives Richard Buery, who is overseeing the community schools initiative. That gives it the scope and authority to address effectively the needs of highly disadvantaged schools. It can lead efforts to promote cooperation, communication and data-sharing among schools and social service providers—all essential to the management of the community schools effort--and the ongoing research necessary to continually improve the initiative.

RECOMMENDATION 5: Continue to improve strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism citywide. While the focus of this report is on truly disadvantaged schools where chronic absenteeism is endemic, the fact is that most other schools have at least some chronically absent students at high risk of long-term academic failure. Officials at the Department of Education have been working hard on getting the word out about absenteeism and trying to convince principals that the matter is worth their heavily divided time. But there is much more the city could do to both increase awareness of the problem and help principals improve attendance in their schools, starting with these three relatively low-cost suggestions.

Raise the profile of chronic absenteeism, both publicly and in schools: Right now, principals most closely watch their “average daily attendance,” which calculates the percentage of kids who are in school on any given day. A school’s average daily attendance is almost always above 90 percent, which psychologically sounds good. (As a principal told one of our researchers, “90 percent is an ‘A.’”) But this number obscures the number of students at risk of missing too much school; a school with 90 percent attendance can also easily have more than a third of its kids chronically absent—a terrible number in anyone’s book. New York City should consider sidelining the statistic of “average daily attendance” and replace it with the much more descriptive chronic absenteeism number.

Offer visual tools that allow principals to easily see which students are chronially absent and what their patterns of absenteeism are. Principals are currently told how many of their students are absent, who they are and how many days they’ve missed. But this does not reveal the patterns or causes behind the absenteeism. The Center for New York Affairs has developed visual tools that allow principals to more easily spot school-wide patterns (like too many kids missing Mondays and Fridays or days before vacations). Such tools also help busy school staff quickly and easily identify kids who need immediate attention and support.

Help school identify the primary drivers of absenteeism and develop a three-pronged approach to reducing absenteeism. Center research shows that reasons for high rates of student absenteeism, such as homelessness, chronic asthma, or extended family visits to distant immigrant homelands, differ from school to school and from student to student. To reduce chronic absenteeism, school staffers need to do the detective work of talking to students and families to discover what drives absenteeism numbers up.

Educators should also recognize that most students can benefit from one of three approaches to reducing their absenteeism. For the majority, focused personal attention from concerned adults in the schools, including rewards for better attendance, may well suffice. A second tier of students and families may require that a guidance counselor, principal or other caring adult work with parents on simple strategies to improve attendance. In a third instance, some families may need assistance from professional social workers or social service agencies—precisely the kind of help contemplated by the de Blasio administration’s community schools initiative.

The de Blasio administration’s commitment to reducing income inequality in New York City banks heavily on efforts involving the public schools. We believe that applying the recommendations we’ve just described to reducing absenteeism, especially where it is endemic, will go a long way toward making that strategy a success.