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Advancing an Ecological Approach to Chronic Absenteeism: Evidence from Detroit

Drawing on ecological systems theory to study chronic absenteeism, the authors identify the association between student, neighborhood, and school factors and chronic absenteeism in Detroit, as well as between macro-level structural and environmental conditions and city-wide chronic absenteeism rates in large U.S. cities. The authors’ findings suggest the need for coordinated, ecosystemic policy interventions that address structural and environmental barriers to attendance along with school-based efforts that more immediately support students and their families.

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A Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach to Improving District Attendance Policy

Collaborative problem-solving research approacheshave the potential to support improvement in educational policy and practice beyond instruction, by facilitating the development of a shared understanding of complex problems and creating social structures where district, community, and research partners can work together to solve them. This study investigates how findings from a developmental evaluation of a district attendance initiative were incorporated into the initiation process of a networked improvement community to create a shared narrative about how members conceptualized the problem of absenteeism and how they should adapt their levers to better align to that problem. The developmental learning process created an infrastructure within which district leaders and community partners could develop a partnership culture that facilitated change in policy. This study suggests the need to revisit the assumptions that have driven non-instructional improvement efforts and highlights the potential of collaborative problem-solving to strengthen the implementation of district reforms.

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Unregulated Open Enrollment and Inequitable Access to Schools of Choice

In severing the link between residential address and school assignment, school choice policies have the potential to decrease school segregation and increase educational equity. Yet, this promise is undermined when school choice creates greater opportunity for those who are already privileged while limiting access to students from historically marginalized groups. This study combines data from a new survey of local open enrollment policies in Metro Detroit, student-level administrative records, and geographic data to critically analyze the local discretion provided in Michigan’s interdistrict school choice policy in relation to the goals of access to schools of choice, desegregation, and educational equity. I find that local school districts implement provisions of state policy in ways that restrict access to Black and economically disadvantaged students while creating pathways of opportunity for others. Districts are incentivized to implement these restrictions because of the inequities built into the state school funding formula and the racialized geography of Metro Detroit that is mechanized in district and county boundaries to restrict access. This study has implications for the regulation of local school choice markets and the role they play in increasing equitable public school opportunities.

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The Potential for Multi-Site Literacy Interventions to Reduce Summer Slide Among Low-Performing Students

Despite the evidence that summer learning loss or “slide” can have devastating cumulative effects on student performance in school, there are few examples of system-wide interventions that can prevent summer learning loss at scale in urban contexts with high rates of low-performing students. This study reports on the first year of a city-wide effort to reduce summer literacy loss in Detroit, Michigan, through a multi-site collaboration between the city Parks and Recreation Department, the local public school district, and several unique program providers. Results from this pilot study suggest that short-duration, high-intensity tutoring may help to prevent learning loss in literacy among a population with high rates of socio-economic disadvantage and low initial performance, regardless of specific program methodologies. This study has implications for other large cities seeking to prevent summer slide by building on existing municipal and district infrastructure.

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Policy Report COVID


Detroit Students’ Experiences During the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic

We interviewed 29 DPSCD high school students in May and June 2020 about their experiences with COVID-19, how often and in what ways they participated in distance learning, and what their perspectives were about school in the fall. This research brief highlights several key findings that have implications for how students can be supported both during and after the pandemic.

School Transportation Policies in Detroit

A patchwork of different school transportation policies exist in Detroit, with some schools offering traditional school busing, some offering shuttle-style buses, some offering subsidized public transportation, and many offering no transportation at all. This report documents the available school-based transportation for Detroit students in DPSCD and charter schools.

Attendance Throughout the Seasons in the Detroit Schools Community District

This study examines how changes in the seasons relate to student absenteeism in Detroit. The probability that a student will miss school was lowest in the Fall, higher in Winter and Spring, and the highest in Summer (June), with exceptionally high rates of absence in the last two weeks of school. Nearly 4,000 DPSCD students (about 7%) reached the threshold for chronic absence in the last two weeks of the school year. Heavy precipitation in the Winter was associated with a 5% increase in the probability that a student would be absent, but the effect of precipitation in the Fall and Spring was minimal. Weather had a stronger affect on chronically absent students than non-chronically absent students.

Detroit’s Uniquely Challenging Context for Student Attendance

Nationwide, long-term population change, asthma rates, poverty and unemployment rates, residential vacancy rates, violent crime rates, average monthly temperature, and racial segregation for a city’s greater metropolitan area are all significantly correlated with city-wide rates of chronic absenteeism. Detroit has the highest chronic absenteeism rate in the country (about 50%), and it has a uniquely challenging context for student attendance. Among cities with 500,000 or more residents, Detroit has the highest adult asthma rate (14%), unemployment rate (about 20%), poverty rate (about 38%), violent crime rate (about 20 per 1,000 people), and residential vacancy rate (27%). In addition, it has the greatest population loss since 1970 (about 50% decline), one of the lowest average monthly temperatures (about 49° F), and is among the most segregated major metropolitan areas in the country.

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Geography, School Type, and High Student Attendance in Detroit

Detroit’s high attenders missed an average of just 2 days a year and performed significantly better on ELA and math standardized tests than non-high attenders, even those missing an average of 9 days a year. Nearly 70% of Detroit’s high attenders were enrolled in “high attendance schools,” or the top third of schools by attendance rate. Just 8% of high attenders were enrolled in “low attendance schools.” Most of Detroit’s high attenders were enrolled in “commuter” charter schools downtown and in the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s application- or exam-based schools, traveling farther on average than non-high attenders to enroll in school.

Exiting Detroit for School: Inequitable Choice Sets and School Quality

Research has documented the complexity of parent-decision making within school choice marketplaces, including the ways in which individual preferences, social networks, and geography influence where parents choose to enroll their children in school. Yet, parent choices are constrained by the ways in which these dynamics intersect with existing school characteristics and locations. By constructing unique choice set “landscapes” for 194 Detroit neighborhoods, taking into account where current neighbors attend school in the city, this paper contributes new evidence on the influence of peer enrollment on school choosing, and how peer choice sets differ from students’ nearest schools. We find that parents are responsive to lower quality schools in their choice sets when choosing to exit and that choice set quality varies by race, with Black students having lower quality schools in their Detroit choice sets.

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School Characteristics and Student Mobility in Detroit

Within- and between-year mobility was particularly high among Detroit resident students compared to other students in Metro Detroit. Students were less likely to make a within-year move if they attended a school categorized as having a high rating in organizational climate, as measured by the 5Essentials surveys. Rates of school-level chronic absence were associated with both within- and between-year mobility, suggesting that other elements of school organizational climate may influence student movement.

Exiting Detroit for School: Inequitable Choice Sets and School Quality

Students who exited Detroit for school had lower quality schools (test score performance, teacher and student stability, new teachers, discipline) in Detroit than students who stayed. Students who attended a non-Detroit school enrolled in schools that had, on average, higher discipline rates, more new teachers, lower teacher retention, and higher test scores than their choice sets in Detroit. The physical and cultural geography of students’ neighborhood choice sets varied dramatically across the city. Students who lived in neighborhoods where most of their neighbors went to just a few schools were less likely to exit.

Student Exit, Mobility, and Attendance in Detroit

This comprehensive report documents Detroit students' school choices, attendance, and mobility as of 2017-18. Nearly a quarter of Detroit students attended a public school in the suburbs in 2017-18. Most had previously attended school in Detroit. Students were more likely to have attended school outside the city when they had fewer city schools near where they lived, raising important policy questions about school locations, closures, and access. Seventeen percent of Detroit students switched schools between school years when they were not in a transition year. Early elementary school and 9th grade students were most likely to be movers, and more than half of all non-routine moves were among students who did not change residence, suggesting that dissatisfaction, disciplinary pushout, or other school-level issues may be contributing to mobility. More than half of students who attended school in Detroit were chronically absent, missing 10% or more of the school year. Controlling for individual student characteristics, students were more likely to be chronically absent if they attended a school with high rates of student mobility, were new to the school, commuted further to get to school, and when they lived in neighborhoods with higher asthma rates.

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School Organizational Effectiveness and Chronic Absenteeism: Implications for Accountability

Chronic absenteeism in K-12schoolsis strongly associated with critical educational outcomes such as student achievement and graduation. Yet, the causes of chronic absenteeism are complex, with environmental, family/individual, and school factors all affecting the likelihood of a student attending school regularly. This exploratory study examines whether school organizational effectiveness has the potential to moderate external influences on chronic absenteeism. Using school-level scores from the 5Essentials surveys, we find that, in traditional public schools, schools that are organized for effectiveness have lower rates of chronic absenteeism, while controlling for student demographics and grade level. In particular, schools with higher scores for “involved families” have lower chronic absenteeism. While charter schools in Detroit have significantly lower rates of chronic absenteeism than traditional public schools, we did not find an association between organizational effectiveness and chronic absenteeism in charter schools. This suggests that student sorting by school type may produce variation in chronic absenteeism rates that is not moderated by school actions. These findings have important implications for practice and policy, as educators seek to reduce chronic absenteeism in response to pressures from high-stakes accountability systems.

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