Should the New York State Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Accountability Plan Punish Schools for High Rates of Chronic Absenteeism?

In the summer of 2013 the state released the Common Core state test results, students moved from 2/3 proficient to 2/3 “below proficient,” aka, failing the test. The public outcry was loud and sustained, the commissioner decided to travel across the state on a “listening tour.”  The tour began in Poughkeepsie, a standing room only auditorium listened for a while, began to interrupt, the meeting became raucous. (Watch the highlights here) Commissioner King was booed off the stage.

As the “tour” moved from city to city the meetings became more and more disorderly and were discontinued, the New York Times wrote,

In a series of public forums across the state, John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, has become the sounding board for crowds of parents, educators and others who equate his name with all they consider to be broken in schooling today. Some blame him for too quickly imposing more rigorous academic standards tied to what is known as the Common Core. Parents call him deaf to the misery of pupils taking standardized tests and too open to commercial involvement in the system; teachers blame him for sapping what joy they had left in their craft.

This school year, after months and months of meetings the new commissioner presented a draft of the federally required Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) school accountability plan. The first listening/public comment meeting took place Thursday night in the Half Hollows School District on Long Island. About fifty in the massive auditorium, eleven speakers, eight in favor of the plan,  Newsday writes,

Thursday night’s turnout by about 50 educators and parent activists was quiet and mannerly — a marked contrast to the crowds of angry teachers and parents who showed up at state conferences in 2013 to boo Elia’s predecessor, former Commissioner John King Jr.

The Common Core/King induced anger resulted in 200,000 parents opting their kids out of the state tests. Now, a few years later, the massive restart, the ESSA plan, is treated with a yawn.

Read a 60-plus page summary of the ESSA plan here. The first section of the plan creates metrics to measure school performance and moves from NCLB test scores only to the ESSA plan, a combination of test scores, growth and a non-academic metric combined on a dashboard. The second half of the plan describes how progress is defined for schools in the lowest five percent.(Read pages 24 – 26 in the summary for you eduwonks!).

The plan is aspirational, in the perfect world the plan would bring all schools to proficiency; however, as Regents Brown, Young and Johnson have raised again and again, how does the plan deal with equity?  The property tax-based funding formula embedded in state law is grossly inequitable. The ESSA plan acknowledges the inequities; however,  the law does not allow for desegregating metrics. We can’t measure different schools by different metrics.

The non-academic metric the plan chose was chronic absenteeism.

I abjure.

Obviously coming to school is essential. In the fall of 1968, a 40-day strike, later in the school year kids took citywide tests, and the scores dropped. The media asked Albert Shanker for  comment, “Thank goodness.”

Over the last few years studies have tracked the impact of absenteeism: guess what? Kids who are chronically  absent, defined as absent more than 10% of the school year: higher dropout rates, higher “everything negative” rates.

Read articles here and here.

Yes, attending school regularly is crucial; however, punishing schools for high absentee rates is akin to punishing people because they’re poor.

Ed Week writes,

… as states put a largely untested policy idea into practice on such a large scale, implementation is everything. If states select indicators that can’t be accurately measured or influenced by schools, or if they fail to provide schools with the resources they need to carry out new mandates, the indicator requirement could lead to unintended consequences or pushback from educators, K-12 groups and researchers have warned.

In 2010 in New York City Mayor Bloomberg convened the “Mayor’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement,” (Read the detailed description of the Task Force here). I was not a fan of the ex-mayor’s education policies, his interagency approach is an exception. Reducing chronic absenteeism must involve all the social service and health agencies that impact the family.

The Center for New York City Affairs at the New School issued a superb report that is the basis of the Bloomberg interagency approach.

Read a summary of the report here and the full report here.

I urge you to read the report, aptly entitled, “A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About New York City’s Lowest Income Elementary Schools.”

The report identifies 18 Risk Load factors that impact chronic absenteeism:

Measuring A School’s Total Risk Load

School Factors:

  1. Students eligible for free lunch
  2. School’s with children in temporary housing
  3. Students eligible for welfare benefits from the Human Resources Administration
  4. Students in Special Education
  5. Black and Hispanic students
  6. Principal Turnover
  7. Teacher Turnover
  8. Student Turnover
  9. Suspension Rate
  10. Safety Score on Learning Environment Survey

Neighborhood Factors:

  1. Involvement with Administration for Children’s Services
  2. Poverty Rate
  3. Adult education levels
  4. Professional employment
  5. Adult male unemployment’
  6. Public housing in school catchment area
  7. Homeless shelters in school catchment area

The report contains interviews with school leaders, many who are doing “all the right things” with their schools showing little or no improvement.

Schools in the Interagency Task Force initiative did show a modest improvement in rates of Chronic Absenteeism – reductions from 23% to 19%.

“Punishing” schools for rates of high chronic absenteeism or not lessening the rate without acknowledging poverty risk load is simply unfair and smacks of the NCLB “test and punish” approach.  I am betting that student attrition rates in charter schools include many chronically absent kids.

Small numbers of schools are “beating the odds,” usually led by extraordinary school leaders and staffs, sadly, the successes are too frequently short lived.

The community schools project in New York City, and, hopefully around the state offers hope. Community schools engage with the social and health services in the community and this multi-faceted, multi-agency approach has shown progress.

Let’s hope the final ESSA plan does not condemn schools for “poor geography,” and let’s acknowledge the impact of poverty risk load factors. These are not excuses, these are realities. Currently inequality is embedded in the law and I hope the final plan loudly condemns the governor and the legislature for not acting to correct. Highly effective leadership and teaching coupled with support from the district and the state, of course, are essential elements in any plan.

Ignoring inequality is foolish and destructive.

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One response to “Should the New York State Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Accountability Plan Punish Schools for High Rates of Chronic Absenteeism?

  1. rachel de aragon

    Alas, this sort of “punish” approach to improvement never seems to do what it intends– actually improve anything. We already know that children are absent largely due to factors outside of school– whether it be as simple as untreated illness or complex family emergencies. So– since we know that these issues are most common in poor neighborhoods, and we already know that increasing community services and supports increases school attendance… why are we bothering to play ” let’s spank the schools”.

    Like

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