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Advancing an Ecological Approach to Chronic Absenteeism: Evidence From Detroit

by Jeremy Singer, Ben Pogodzinski, Sarah Winchell Lenhoff & Walter Cook - 2021

Background/Context: Chronic absenteeism has received increased attention from educational leaders and policy makers, in part because of the association between attendance and important student outcomes. Student attendance is influenced by a range of student-, school-, and community-level characteristics, suggesting that a comprehensive and multilayered approach to addressing chronic absenteeism is warranted, particularly in high-poverty urban districts. Given the complexity of factors associated with chronic absenteeism, we draw from ecological systems theory to study absenteeism in Detroit, which has the highest rate of chronic absence of major cities in the country.

Purpose/Research Questions: We use administrative and public data to advance the ecological approach to chronic absenteeism. In particular, we ask: (1) How are student, neighborhood, and school characteristics associated with individual absenteeism? (2) How are structural and environmental conditions associated with citywide rates of absenteeism? Our study helps to fill a gap in the research on absenteeism by moving beyond a siloed focus on student, family, or school factors, instead placing them in relationship to one another and in their broader socioeconomic context. It also illustrates how researchers, policy makers, and administrators can take a theoretically informed approach to chronic absenteeism and use administrative data to conceptualize the problem and the potential routes to improving it.

Research Design: Using student-level administrative data on all students living and going to school in Detroit in the 2015–2016 school year, we estimate a series of multilevel logistic regressions that measure the association between student-, neighborhood-, and school-level factors and the likelihood of a Detroit student being chronically absent. We also use publicly available data to examine how macrosystemic conditions (e.g., health, crime, poverty, racial segregation, weather) are correlated with citywide rates of absenteeism in the 2015–2016 school year, and we compare Detroit with other large cities based on those conditions.

Findings/Results: Student-, neighborhood-, and school-level factors were significant predictors of chronic absenteeism in Detroit. Students were more likely to be chronically absent if they were economically disadvantaged, received special education services, moved schools or residences during the year, lived in neighborhoods with more crime and residential blight, and went to schools with more economically disadvantaged students and less stable student populations. Macro-level factors were also significantly correlated with citywide rates of absenteeism, highlighting Detroit’s uniquely challenging context for attendance.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our ecological understanding of absenteeism suggests that school-based efforts are necessary but not sufficient to substantially decrease rates of chronic absenteeism in Detroit and other high-absenteeism contexts. Policies that provide short-term relief from economic hardship and aim to reduce inequalities in the long-run must be understood as part of, rather than separate from, a policy agenda for reducing chronic absenteeism.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 4, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23652, Date Accessed: 5/15/2021 8:35:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeremy Singer
    Wayne State University
    E-mail Author
    JEREMY SINGER is a Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University’s College of Education and a research assistant for the Detroit Education Research Partnership. His research interests are related to the social and material context of urban education, including student stratification in marketized school choice contexts and the intersection of geography, class, race, and school policy.
  • Ben Pogodzinski
    Wayne State University
    E-mail Author
    BEN POGODZINSKI, Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University’s College of Education. His current research interests focus on how state and district policies, school organizational context, and community factors influence student enrollment and attendance patterns. His additional research focuses on the organization and sustainability of Catholic schools.
  • Sarah Winchell Lenhoff
    Wayne State University
    E-mail Author
    SARAH WINCHELL LENHOFF, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University’s College of Education. Her recent research has examined district and school infrastructure to support school improvement; the effects of school choice policy on equitable opportunities for students; and the causes and consequences of student absenteeism. She is the principal investigator of the Detroit Education Research Partnership, a research–practice partnership focused on improving student attendance and engagement in Detroit public schools.
  • Walter Cook
    Detroit Education Research Partnership
    E-mail Author
    WALTER COOK, M.A., is a research assistant for the Detroit Education Research Partnership. Previously, he worked for several Detroit nonprofits whose missions were to promote educational equity in the city of Detroit. Before that, he spent four years as an Economics of Education Fellow and PhD candidate in educational policy at Michigan State University, where he earned a master’s degree in economics.
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