Why do Detroit kids miss so much school? Hint: Don’t just blame the schools

Cities with high rates of asthma, segregation and poverty also have higher rates of school absenteeism. Detroit suffers in those categories and others, a new study notes.  (Osborn High courtesy photo)

Detroit students have among the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the nation, and a new report suggests schools alone can’t fix it.

Instead, the major causes for Detroit students missing class at three times the state average are predominantly outside of school, such as asthma, poverty, segregation and plummeting city population, according to a new report by researchers at Wayne State University’s College of Education.

“While school-based efforts to reduce absenteeism are critical, they are likely insufficient to address the enormous challenges students face in getting to school in Detroit,” report co-author Sarah Lenhoff, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State, told Bridge Magazine.

While focusing on the challenge of absenteeism, the report provides further proof of a broader, sobering lesson for education reformers:  School-focused efforts such as teacher accountability and student testing are limited by factors that educators may have no control over.

In the 2018-19 school year, 62 percent of Detroit Public Schools Community District students were considered “chronically absent,” meaning they were absent at least 18 days during the school year. Eighteen days represents 10 percent of the school year. Across the state, 20 percent of students were chronically absent.

The 62 percent figure represents an improvement over the previous year, when 70 percent of Detroit students were chronically absent. It’s an increase, however, over 2016-17 (56 percent) and 2015-16 (55 percent).

School attendance impacts academic achievement. Detroit has the state’s highest rate of chronic absenteeism, and also is among the state’s lowest-performing school districts on the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti lists decreasing absenteeism as a key to improving Detroit schools.

Last year, Detroit schools spent $9 million to hire attendance agents for most of its 106 schools to check up on students at their homes when they’ve been missing from class. The district has also added vans to pick up students who’ve been chronically absent.

The new report, though, titled “Detroit’s uniquely challenging context for student attendance,” suggests school-based efforts may have limited impact.

Researchers examined a number of environmental and structural factors in 33 cities across the nation with populations over 500,000. The study found:

  • The percent of adults with asthma had the highest correlation to school absences, followed by violent crime rate, residential vacancy rate, unemployment rate and poverty rate
  • Other factors with a statistically significant correlation to school attendance: segregation, population change since 1970 and cold average temperature.
  • Detroit ranked worst among the 33 cities on six of the factors (asthma, violent crime, residential vacancy rate, unemployment rate, poverty rate and population change), second in another (segregation) and third in the other (temperature).

“Basically, Detroit has incredibly challenging barriers [to school attendance],” said study co-author Jeremy Singer, doctoral research assistant at Wayne State. “No other city even comes close to Detroit.”

Detroit has one of the nation’s highest rates of asthma, which alone causes more than 1,700 days of missed school, according to one study.

The research suggests that efforts to improve attendance in Detroit schools can’t be based solely in the schools themselves, Singer said, but must include community-wide efforts. Examples could include more reliable, affordable public transportation in a city where four in 10 adults don’t own a car, and considering student walking routes to schools when planning community redevelopment.

“A lot of our efforts so far have been school-based efforts,” Lenhoff said. “Those efforts only go so far.”

Lenhoff said she hopes the study will help state leaders understand that school achievement is a reflection of community achievement.

Community leaders are beginning to work together on the issue, forming a group called Every School Day Counts Detroit with the goal of decreasing chronic absenteeism to 15 percent by 2027.

“It’s important to document this so we can begin to do something about it,” Singer said. “This has to be approached in a coordinated way.”

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Jarrett Skorup
Tue, 11/26/2019 - 8:29am

The absenteeism rate fluctuates wildly - like 20% over a two year period. And one of the strongest factors in determining whether students go to school or not is whether they are in a charter school (they have almost half the rate of chronically absent students).

All of the factors named here, of course, do make it challenging for the schools. And only an idiot would solely blame the district for this high of an absenteeism rate. But all of the challenging factors are pretty much the same year-to-year and they are the same factors being dealt with by charter school students. So it's a bit strange to act like all or even most of the problems are out of the districts control. If that was true, you'd see a stable absenteeism rate year-to-year and between charters and the traditional district.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 9:08am

Your point basically is the elephant in the room the story wants to pretend is not there . It is the job of parents to get their kids to school. Yes, there are mitigating factors, but some parents are simply failing in their duties. Parents who take kids to charter schools are simply more invested (thus the absenteeism rate being half of what it is in public schools.)

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 10:29am

Parents who take kids to charter schools are simply more capable of being invested. Fixed it for you. I'm sure there are plenty of parents in the Detroit schools who would like to be more invested but circumstances prevent it.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 11:23am

There are hardships all around and in Detroit, things are even harder. If you want to give parents a pass for not getting their kids to school, go ahead. But until everyone is honest with the reality of things, nothing will improve. Also, your statement "Parents who take kids to charter schools are simply more capable of being invested" is based on what, your research? When schools fail the kids few give the school a pass. When parents fail their kids we make socio-economical excuses for every parent that cannot get their kids to school?

Al Churchill
Wed, 12/04/2019 - 6:29pm

There is a multiplicity of reasons that determine how well kids do in school. However, parental involvement is crucial. A while back, the website of the Michigan Department of Education stated that "the most reliable predictor of school success is the degree that parents are involved in a childs school experience." That includes getting them there.
As far as I can see, you are also right about charter school parents being more invested in their children and school.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 4:04pm

Charters are in the business of excluding hard-to-instruct students so they can keep profiting at kids' expense. Of course charters have more involved, supportive parents. Selective enrollment is their business.

It'd be far better to talk about how to get all kids to public schools rather than continuing to promote the charter scam.

Wed, 11/27/2019 - 10:11am

So the idea you are pushing, is to use the children of supportive parents as hostages to enable some "new program" or type of change that you envison, rather than to allow them to benefit from having a class that can perform at a higher level?

Sean of Detroit
Sun, 12/01/2019 - 7:33pm

Holding them hostage? I guess that is one way, but another might be to make really good public schools. There are other solutions that people are ignoring because they are too focused on the problem.

Ren Farley
Tue, 11/26/2019 - 9:18am

Thank you for this informative essay about students who miss many
days of classes. This is important. Is there a definitive report showing
that charter school students are much less likely to be absent that
students in the new Detroit district? Thank you.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 9:20am

What about parental involvement?? How could they ignore this?

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 1:02pm

A child’s first teacher is their parent. If mother and father aren’t literate there’s high probability the child won’t be either. If the parents don’t prioritize school attendance the child won’t either. If you can figure out how to make a baby you can figure out how to hustle your way to buying an old beater that runs just good enough to get the kids to school.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 2:14pm

Even when the parents are literate and engaged, it is possible for a child to have health problems that make their kids miss a lot of school. I am currently dealing with that. My husband and I are Engineers and strongly believe in education, but often our kids are too ill to learn and we just have had to accept that. We try our hardest to keep them engaged and from falling behind, but it is challenging.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 2:59pm

Approximately 90% of children in Detroit Public Schools come from Single Mother Households......this 5- 6 decade long Demographic is coming home to roost in the Black Community. There is very little a school district can do when the dominant demographic is a child from a Single Mother home already living in poverty, illiteracy.....it's called Generational Comfortable Poverty. Kids are getting breakfast and lunch in schools, yet the Chronic Absent rate is off the charts.

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 1:45pm

I believe that parents want there kids to have a good education but sometimes getting them ready and to school could be challenging for some parents. Has any school tried a volunteer program for driving kids to school. Like take a student to school today might work or getting more parents to carpool.
Great article and I love Detroit it can come back strong.

Wed, 11/27/2019 - 12:05am

I live in an urban community that has the conditions identified in the article and yet attendance rate isn’t as low as reported for Detroit. I did not get anything from this article that showed how Detroit was unique and deserved special considerations.
The Wayne State University study seems to be nothing more than a data assessment and made no effort to understand what create the data they reviewed. There was nothing that described how segregation caused kids to be absent in Detroit or how it worked differently than any similar urban setting in Michigan, or how violence worked differently than in other towns, how poverty works on education differently in Detroit than other parts of Michigan.
With such similarities and with the only difference population, what should a reader take away from this article? Why should those of us outside of Detroit and Wayne County believe that Detroit is special and deserves more support than the students in our communities? Why doesn’t Bridge report on these conditions and problems across Michigan?
How are we to change our communities to help kids in our towns if all we hear about is long established generalities with no description of how they, on personal level, affect student school attendance?

Sun, 12/01/2019 - 10:09am

Excellent questions!

Wed, 11/27/2019 - 4:54am

It's not asthma. It's lazy parents.

Peter K
Fri, 11/29/2019 - 8:47pm

Would you please send this article to the Governor and the Legislature so they understand the importance of time in the classroom the next time they think that reducing the school year beyond the 9 snow days is good. Snow days should be made up.

Fri, 11/29/2019 - 11:21pm

This report gives those lazy parents and lazy children 3 more excuses for not attending classes.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 12/10/2019 - 11:39pm

The crucial question that this article avoids is: how much of this problem is due to institutional factors, and how much is due to personal characteristics. The article says, "The percent of adults with asthma had the highest correlation to school absences, followed by violent crime rate, residential vacancy rate, unemployment rate and poverty rate." But the report itself says, "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, and when they lived in neighborhoods with higher asthma rates." So institutional factors, environmental are the most significant factors only after controlling fo personal characteristics. That is quite a different story than the one portrayed by the article..