School & District Management

Chronic Absenteeism Is Most Severe in Poor Communities

By Lovey Cooper — September 13, 2016 3 min read
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The vast majority of the nation’s school districts struggle with students who are chronically absent, but the problem is especially concentrated in school systems that serve large numbers of poor students, a new analysis of federal data has found.

While 9 out of 10 school districts experience some chronic absenteeism, around half the 6.5 million students who were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year were enrolled in just 4 percent of the nation’s districts, according to researchers Robert Balfanz and Hedy N. Chang.

Their analysis—"Preventing Missed Opportunity"—builds on nationwide chronic-absenteeism data released in June by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, which found that about 13 percent of all U.S. students missed three or more weeks of school in that year.

At least 89 percent of public schools reported some degree of chronic absenteeism—students who missed three or more weeks.

Big-city districts such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia—where low-income children are the majority of enrollment—reported that more than a third of all students were chronically absent.

Where Are the Nation's Chronically Absent Students?

Chronic absenteeism—when students miss three or more weeks of school in a year—affects schools all over the nation, though the problem is most acute in communities with large numbers of poor families.

• Half the nation’s 6.5 million chronically absent students are found in just 4 percent of school districts and 12 percent of schools. These 654 districts are spread across 47 states and the District of Columbia.

• 10 percent of chronically absent students can be found in just 30 districts in two states with very large student populations, California and Texas.

• Some affluent suburban districts known for academic achievement have large numbers of chronically absent students, such as Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va. While their absence rates are close to the national average, the large numbers reflect the sheer size of the districts and their growing populations of low-income students.

• Districts serving poor urban neighborhoods typically have both high rates and large numbers of chronically absent students. Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia report that more than a third of students are chronically absent.

• Many poor rural districts have high rates of chronic absenteeism. A majority of districts reporting rates of 30 percent or higher are rural and town districts.

Source: Attendance Works; Everyone Graduates Center

Balfanz and Chang also identified districts that are more affluent and suburban. They singled out Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., two large, suburban Washington districts with high overall academic achievement that have experienced a significant influx of low-income students in recent years. Both districts ranked among the top 15 in the nation in the total number of chronically absent students, though they are much larger than most school systems, according to the analysis.

“What’s clear from our analysis is that chronic absenteeism follows poverty wherever it is found in significant concentrations,” said Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who leads the Everyone Graduates Center.

Academic Risks

Chronic absenteeism, Chang explained in a phone call with reporters, was defined by the researchers as when students miss so many days of school, for any reason—excused or unexcused—that it directly results in poor student outcomes.

“All the best instruction in schools does not make a difference if students are not there to benefit from it,” said Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national initiative that promotes the importance of regular school attendance, who has extensively studied how missing schoolaffects students.

Chronic absenteeism is an early indicator of all sorts of academic risks, starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, Chang said.

In the early grades, students who are chronically absent have lower reading and math achievement. By middle and high school, chronic absence can be used as a clear warning sign for potential dropouts.

Widespread and Concentrated

Balfanz said that his arm of the research team is most interested in the characteristics of the locations that result in the highest number of instances and percentages of chronic absences.

He stresses that the phenomenon of chronic absence is both widespread and highly concentrated.

In June, when the Education Department first released the civil rights data collection, it included the first-ever analysis of attendance in nearly every public school.

It found that for black, Latino, American Indian, and multiracial high school students, roughly 20 percent or more were chronically missing from class. For Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander high school students, 25 percent or more missed at least 15 days of school.

At the high school level, 18 percent of all students and 20 percent of English-language learners are chronically absent, the data showed.

Tackling the problem will take a multipronged, tailored approach, Balfanz said.

More-affluent school systems could be poised to better combat the issue right away than districts with fewer resources, the researchers suggested.

In some rural areas, as well as in districts serving disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, intergenerational poverty and a web of challenges that are impediments to students’ getting to school consistently pose a more daunting challenge for policymakers and education leaders.

“We need a very different set of strategies for these districts,” Balfanz said.

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