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Enrolling kids in preschool isn't enough. To close the achievement gap, we need to make sure they show up.

A recent study revealed that DC's preschoolers miss a whole lot of school. Universal preschool may not mean much if the kids who need it most aren't there, but getting them there can be complicated.

Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

Almost 1 in 5 DC preschoolers had more than 10 unexcused absences last year, according to a study recently released by DC Action for Children, a nonprofit that focuses on disadvantaged children in DC. And because that figure doesn't count excused absences, it almost certainly understates the problem.

Those absences deprive many low-income children of their best chance to achieve at the level of their middle-class peers. Kids who miss a lot of preschool are more likely to start kindergarten without the skills they need, and they may never catch up.

The truancy rate, defined as the proportion of students with more than 10 unexcused absences, was 17% for preschoolers and kindergarteners in DCPS last year. The only category of students with a higher rate was high school students, at 42%. The truancy rate for students in grades 1 through 5 was 7%, and for those in grades 6-8 it was 8%.

While high school truancy has attracted a good deal of attention, preschool truancy has been largely overlooked. What's more, actual absenteeism in preschool is almost certainly much higher than the truancy rate would suggest. That figure only counts unexcused absences, when students don't have a note from a parent with a valid reason, such as illness.

Excused absences are more common among younger children. But DCPS doesn't track the number of students who miss more than 10 days of school for any reason, excused or unexcused. That rate, which is tracked by most other jurisdictions, is called the chronic absentee rate, and it's considered to be the best measure for identifying students who are at risk.

DC's charter sector does track its chronic absentee rate, and it provides some idea of what that rate might be for DCPS. In charters, the rate of unexcused preschool absences is only 8%, less than half of DCPS's. But if you add excused absences, the rate soars to 31%.

Measures of average attendance for DC schools may look encouraging, in the high 80's or low 90's in terms of percentages. But those figures can mask the number of kids who are truant or chronically absent. One highly regarded charter preschool network, AppleTree, was reasonably content with its 88% attendance rate. But when school officials looked at the rate of chronic absenteeism, they were surprised to find it was 25%.

Chronic absenteeism and student achievement

Studies have shown that chronic absenteeism in preschool is correlated with academic problems later on, especially if those children are low-income. A study done in Baltimore showed that 25% of the students who were chronically absent in pre-K and kindergarten were held back in 3rd grade, as compared to 9% of other students. Third grade is a critical turning point, when a lack of proficiency in reading strongly correlates with future academic problems.

In Chicago, where almost half of 3-year-olds and over one-third of 4-year-olds were chronically absent, students who missed a lot of preschool scored lower on a kindergarten readiness test and had lower reading scores at the end of 2nd grade. The study also found that kids who are absent a lot in preschool are more likely to be chronically absent in later grades.

Poor minority students in Chicago were the most likely to be chronically absent. Those are also the students who have the most to gain from attending preschool. Poor minority children generally start kindergarten behind their middle-class peers, and the achievement gap between the two groups only widens in higher grades.

Why is preschool absenteeism so high? The Chicago study found that more than half of the absences were due to illness. Another 18% were due to transportation difficulties and other logistical obstacles.

What are the causes in DC?

No doubt illness is also a major cause of preschool absences here. To some extent, there's no way around that: little kids get sick a lot. But according to DC Action for Children, one charter school, Eagle Academy's Wheeler Road campus, has educated its parents about when an illness is serious enough to warrant keeping a child at home. Along with other strategies, that has helped reduce absenteeism.

DC Action for Children urges a city-wide survey, like the one in Chicago, to identify the causes of preschool absenteeism here. While individual schools can try to help chronically absent students on a case-by-case basis, the organization says it would be more effective for DC agencies and community organizations to work with schools through broader initiatives like health campaigns and improved transportation.

But Jack McCarthy, CEO of AppleTree Early Learning, a network of charter preschools serving a largely low-income population, isn't sure a survey is needed. Many of the barriers to attendance, he says, stem from problems caused by poverty.

Families with absent children have sometimes been evicted from their homes. Others have chronic health problems or child custody and domestic issues.

The school provides as much support as it can. One mother was living at the DC General homeless shelter and taking two buses to get her children to school, resulting in frequent tardiness (AppleTree counts arrivals after 9 am as absences). The school was able to find spaces for her children at another AppleTree site within walking distance of DC General.

Preschool seen as daycare?

Some observers have suggested that many low-income families view public preschool as free daycare, using it on an as-needed basis. McCarthy says that while there may be some truth to that, it's an oversimplification.

At the beginning of the year, AppleTree families may in fact view preschool as daycare, he says. But after the school explains that their children are learning important skills, attendance often improves.

Still, despite those efforts, about 25% of AppleTree students are chronically absent. McCarthy was surprised by that figure, which the school hadn't calculated until I asked about it. While the school would like to gets its daily attendance above the current rate of 88%, that was the figure it had set as its goal.

Now, he says, the school will be measuring things differently, and will perhaps intervene before a child has the 10 consecutive absences that currently trigger a home visit. McCarthy admits that it can be difficult to communicate a sense of urgency about preschool attendance to low-income parents, many of whom didn't have great experiences at school themselves. Even something as minor as a rainy day can affect attendance, he says.

But McCarthy says that expelling children who have missed a lot of school, as Councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania has proposed, is too punitive a reaction.

He believes that most attendance problems have their roots in poverty, and he favors measures that would address the challenges poor families face. For example, he says, the District could develop a better system of providing temporary housing and communicating where the vacancies are. Some children miss school because their parents have to apply in person for housing every morning.

And it seems that a convenient location can eliminate many of the logistical barriers to attendance. Two of AppleTree's sites are in developments that include subsidized housing, and McCarthy says those are the sites with the best attendance rates.

With 80% of 3-year-olds and 94% of 4-year-olds now enrolled in preschool, DC ranks first in the nation in preschool access. But if we want kids to truly benefit from the experience, high enrollment figures are not enough. We need to get a better handle on how many kids are chronically absent, and then do whatever we can to make sure they show up.


Catania says empowering parents is key to improving schools

DC Councilmember David Catania answered questions Monday night from Greater Greater Education contributors and readers. In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, he called for empowering parents, improving middle school options, and generally addressing DC's education issues with a fierce sense of urgency.

Left to right: Natalie Wexler, David Catania, Ken Archer. Photo from David Catania's office.

Drawing on an impressive fund of knowledge acquired during the 102 visits to DC schools he's undertaken as chair of the DC Council's education committee, Catania balanced his criticism with praise. He said he's seen impressive principals and teachers during his visits, and impressive results across both the DCPS and charter sectors. But he also believes there's much that needs to be improved.

If you weren't able to join us, you can read the Storify version here, or view the videos of the event at the end of this post. Or read on for an account of the highlights.

Catania spoke of a tendency towards "silo-ization" in the DC government's approach to education, with social services being treated as largely separate from education. He pointed out that at some schools a significant proportion of families are homeless and the rest are receiving government assistance.

"The most efficient way to defeat poverty that has ever been constructed is education," he said. "And when you have the inequality that exists in our city, I don't think the current pace of change is acceptable."

He mentioned his bill to increase funding for "at risk" students as one way to speed change. He said he also hopes to see a rise in the basic amount of money DCPS spends per student, as a study commissioned by the city has recommended. That study also recommended additional funds for at-risk students, but the recommendation was less far-reaching than Catania's.

And he pointed to his proposal to provide college tuition aid to DC students whose families make below $215,000. That bill, scaled down somewhat from the original proposal, passed a committee vote unanimously yesterday. Catania said a similar program in Washington State has increased the graduation rate for low-income students from 59% to 78%. That figure went up to 90%, he said, at Tacoma schools that had a college counselor in place.

Need for more communication

One theme that emerged from Catania's comments was the need for greater communication between sectors and individuals. He urged that principals at feeder schools talk with their counterparts at destination schools, to ensure that students at one school are prepared to go to the next.

And he said that DCPS should be talking to successful charter schools to learn from their experience. He interpreted DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson's comments about middle schools at a recent DC Council hearing as supportive of that view.

According to the Washington Post, Henderson said that "perhaps the city should figure out how to funnel children to charter schools in the middle grades, arguing that 'they know how to do middle school really well.'" The Post also reported that Catania had "bristled" at that suggestion and declared that he was "not going to outsource middle schools to charters."

Asked whether he thought Henderson had seriously meant to suggest such a thing, Catania implied that the apparent conflict between himself and the Chancellor had been exaggerated. "I think she meant we should explore more how to use charter schools, perhaps," he said Monday night.

But he added that Henderson didn't seem to have a plan to improve DCPS middle schools, which, with the exception of Deal MS in Ward 3, have had difficulty attracting families. In the absence of a plan, Catania said, her remarks "left people with the impression that she was abandoning middle schools."

Catania said he expects to receive a middle school plan from Henderson on December 15, and he understands it will be a "work in progress." One way of improving middle schools, he said, would be to equalize their offerings. He noted that students at Deal have higher-level math options than students at the far less popular Hardy Middle School, not far away.

Although he recently announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a mayoral bid, Catania deflected questions about what he would do as mayor. Asked what he would look for in a chancellor, Catania said it was "really premature to start doing personnel."

Truancy and preschool absenteeism

On truancy, Catania said that tightening up sanctions has led to improvements in younger grades, but it's still a problem at the high school level. He predicted that his bill to end social promotion before high school would ultimately reduce truancy by ensuring that students who reach 9th grade would function at grade level and therefore be less likely to become disengaged.

He also noted that absenteeism is a huge problem at the pre-K level, and school attendance for 3- and 4-year-olds isn't required by law. Noting that there are waiting lists for many pre-K programs, Catania suggested that families who miss a certain number of days of pre-K should be required to give up their preschool slots.

Catania also talked about the need to foster effective parent organizations across the District, and described a recent event at which parents heading established organizations gave tips to representatives of emerging parent groups in Ward 8. His office is now creating an "online toolkit" that will help parents organize and maintain PTAs.

While he said he didn't believe that DC should return to having an elected school board with authority to make operational decisions, he defended his aggressive oversight of education from his perch as chair of the education committee. He criticized those, such as the Post's editorial board, who he said see the Council's involvement in education as representing "nothing but mischief."

"I have a different point of view," he said to the audience. "I think we represent you. And if you're not getting your middle school, then you have to prevail upon me to do my job, and on the other 12 to do their job."

Once PTAs are organized across the District, he said, "then you spring to life, and you start saying 'we demand this.' But nothing short of really intense community pressure is going to move the direction of the system."

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:


Catania's reforms, part 2: Ending "social promotion"

Last week, Councilmember David Catania announced 7 proposals to restructure operations at DC Public Schools (DCPS). Yesterday we looked at a bill that would give some schools extra money, and school principals control over their budgets. Another bill would discourage the practice of "social promotion."

Image from PERDaily.

In social promotion, a school advances a child to a new grade before he or she has mastered the previous year's material. This seems ludicrous on its face—why would anyone advance a child who isn't ready?

The answer is that schools have two options when dealing with a child who has not learned the needed material by the end of the year. The student can either:

  • stay in that class for another year ("grade retention")
  • be moved up a year ("social promotion")

The concept behind grade retention is that this extra time will allow lagging students to catch up. Meanwhile, social promotion programs presume that the child will give up if he or she is so publicly humiliated, and might instead be able to catch up using extra tutoring during the summer or the following school year.

Under either approach, the child who has failed once will be mixed in with children who on average are able to move faster through the curriculum. Without classes aimed at different skill levels or "tracking," there's no option to shift them to a slower curriculum that can take more time teaching each concept.

New law shifts from social promotion to grade retention

Title II of Catania's Focused Student Achievement Act of 2013 sets standards kids must meet to advance from one grade to the next. DCPS had a previous practice requiring social promotion in grades K-2, 4, and 6-7; this bill would end that policy.

The bill does allow principals to choose to promote children they feel need an exception, but only if they are willing to explain their decision in writing to the Chancellor's office. This preserves flexibility on the part of the principal, but works to stem the tide of children being pushed forward before they're ready.

It also requires schools to identify students at risk of failure by January, and develop and implement a plan to help them catch up. Two months before the end of the school year (roughly mid-April) the principal must contact parents of students still on course to fail, and give them a list of options that they can pursue to address the problem. This is significant.

The old rules meant that a huge population of students stalled in 9th grade and were unable to advance to 10th as high school grade promotion is based on relatively objective criteria. Of course, large numbers of students dropped out after being trapped in 9th grade year after year. Many of those who did not would spent four or five years in 9th grade and then graduate due to odd loopholes in the graduation requirements.

Note that these students would never be in 10th grade, never take DC CAS, and thus never be a part of school evaluations. There is some evidence this is an intentional result, and this anomaly will be the subject of its own article, at a later date.

So, Catania's bill realigns DC's grade advancement policy from promotion to "grade retention", or generally keeping kids in a grade until they complete its requirements. Is this a good idea?

Arguments for retention

The rationale to keep children in a grade if they haven't completed its requirements is simple: if they've not learnt the previous year's material, they will be very unlikely to succeed in the subsequent grade. Socially promoted children are far more likely to be truant than average students, and far more likely to eventually drop out of school altogether. Of course, it's unlikely they would be average students, regardless of whether they were promoted or retained.

Florida ended social promotion statewide in 2002, and a study that examined the effect of the change seemed optimistic. The authors noticed a rise in test scores among students who were retained when compared to similarly struggling students who were advanced to the next grade.

Another study found that increased retention in elementary school was associated with a small rise in the eventual average male hourly wage. This suggests that retention may have positive outcomes which have a beneficial impact on these students' careers and may not be identifiable through standardized testing.

Arguments for promotion

While the arguments for retention seem convincing, there are reasons this debate wasn't settled long ago. New York City shifted from a promotion-oriented system to one similar to Catania's proposal in 1981. When researchers examined the effects of that policy years later, they found that students had been truant, and dropped out, at far higher rates under the retention-oriented program than similar students had under the earlier promotion-oriented approach.

While the narrative of social promotion has been that teachers and principals don't want to hold students back for fear of "hurting their feelings," in fact the feelings of humiliation and disillusionment may be responsible for this significant drop in school graduation rates that New York City experienced. Other studies have suggested that retained students have higher rates of alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy, than their promoted peers.

Neither is a good solution; DC needs targeted intervention

It's significant that both options make their case primarily by describing the flaws in the other. Retention proponents argue promotion hurts test scores, while promotion advocates point to the higher drop-out rates and social dysfunction retention provokes. For over 10 years, government and nonprofit education policy analysts have been arguing for a third option.

Under this alternative, school officials detect possible failure early. Teachers and counselors intervene with the student before he or she fall too far behind. This is, of course, an optimistic scenario, but research has generally concluded that it is simply the only way to see any actually positive change in the status quo.

These interventions require extra in-school time, extra teaching resources, and an administration infrastructure that notices the problem early enough that these measures have a chance to suceed.

It takes a lot of work to see this through, but Catania's bill contains some elements that can effect this sort of early-intervention policy. It makes clear that schools have an obligation to monitor their students and help them to pass using individualized assistance.

For that reason, more than any other, it appears to be a positive step for DCPS, though it's important for legislators and school officials to keep focusing less on the question of social promotion versus retention, and more on ways to help students before either becomes necessary.


Pick up more truants from the streets

As of mid-March, the Metropolitan Police Department has engaged 3,260 truants so far this school year. In these cases, truant patrol officers pick up and transport children back to a school or a temporary holding facility. MPD says they could pick up more if they had more officers and vans.

Truancy Contacts by MPD District, August 2012-March 22, 2013.
Data from MPD Investigative Services Bureau, Youth Investigations Division.

MPD has two truant patrol officers in one van per police district (there are 7 districts citywide). Each seats a maximum of 10 passengers. But Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said in an interview that MPD could easily fill 10 Metrobuses each school day.

Could DC take a significant bite out of truancy just by giving MPD enough officers and vans to pick up all of the truants they could find?

The truants come from all police districts across the city, based on data Groomes provided, though the 5th District, in Northeast DC, had far more truants than the others. Although MPD engages truants in the 7-11 age group (96 in the current sample), the vast majority are in the 15-18 age group (1,774).

Truancy Contacts by MPD District, August 2012-March 22, 2013. Data from MPD Investigative Services Bureau, Youth Investigations Division.

Of the 3,260, no one really knows how many are repeat offenders and how many are one-timers. DC schools do not maintain a central database. The records they do maintain are primarily on site, in paper form.

MPD keeps only paper receipts of its #379 Truancy forms. And those are in dusty drawers somewhere, with no names, and only one form is issued for each truant processed.

MPD could establish an electronic database which officers can access from their computers, vehicle laptops and MPD smartphones. Although strong restrictions prevent MPD and other agencies from accessing schools' student records, MPD could create a database of truant contacts just to account for how officers are spending their time.

Such a database would help officers and give school officials and support agencies and organizations track and rank the most chronic truants—particularly those who move between schools. Normal restrictions on preventing public access to juvenile records would still be in place for those outside of MPD, school officials, and select agencies.

Although there are a plethora of organizations and agencies that work to address truancy, few of them keep reliable (if any) records of their contacts and outcomes. Of those that do, like the truancy task force—which only has about 60 contacts recorded so far this school year—these records don't provide enough data to reduce the large scope of this problem.

When MPD contacts with truants alone are hundreds of times larger than the number of truants being touched by the truancy task force, it's difficult to imagine how these can be considered effective with current practices. Truancy agencies and organizations are limited in their work by the very fact that parents must agree to voluntarily accept their services.

The consequences of truancy go beyond the classroom. Young children, and even those as old as 18, on the streets can easily be tempted by or lured into criminal behavior. Sex trafficking for girls is a serious problem, MPD officials confirm. Individuals and gangs in some communities convince young children to carry contraband.

While it won't be easy to solve the root causes of truancy, at a very minimum DC can remove the obvious truant students from the streets and attempt to connect them with their appropriate school.

The numbers increase at jaw dropping levels each month. We have no time to waste. The District's students, many of whom have tremendous potential, cannot afford to have the system fail them.


Gray budget funds school modernizations and more

All middle and high schools that still need modernizing will get done in the next 6 years, under the budget Mayor Gray is releasing today, and some of the most out-of-date elementary school buildings.

Ballou HS. Image from DCPS.

The capital plan has $465 million to modernize high schools, starting with $162 million in Fiscal Year 2014. The money will finish modernizations for the remaining high schools: Ballou, Dunbar, Ellington, and Roosevelt. It also funds the planning, design, and construction for a "Spingarn Career & Technical Education Center" which the administration plans to open in the fall of 2014 at Spingarn High School, which is the only high school closing in the current round.

Middle schools get $242 million over 6 years, with $69 million in FY 2014. That will fund building a middle school in Brookland and renovating the closed Shaw building, as well as modernizing all remaining middle schools such as Stuart-Hobson.

$920.5 million ($128 million in FY 2014) goes to elementary schools, to modernize more schools such as Janney and Langdon. Hearst and Mann, which don't have cafeterias, will get them as part of modernization projects. Shepherd Elementary gets funding for the extra recommendations that came up during its modernization process.

Libraries and librarians

As already announced, Gray's budget increases education funding by $80 million. It matches the level we already saw in the budget allocations, meaning that the threshold for small schools will indeed increase and some schools will see less funding for librarians and other positions.

However, Gray is expanding funding for DC Public Libraries so that every library can be open 7 days a week. Most will be open until 9 pm Monday to Thursday as well as afternoons on Saturday and Sunday. They also get $2 million for books and e-books.

Further, the budget provides $103 million to renovate and, as part of a public-private partnership, expand the MLK Library. There is $15.2 million to renovate the Cleveland Park library, $21.7 for the Palisades library, and $4.8 million for Woodridge's library.

Charter schools, special education, and more

DC will provide $7.4 million more for charter school facilities. Each charter gets $3,000 per student per year to pay for their buildings, but $200 of that is currently federal money; DC is bumping up its local contribution to the full $3,000.

In addition, the budget provides $4.3 million in FY 2013 and $6.4 million in FY 2014 for special education early intervention, which helps many children avoid developing ongoing special needs; $1.8 million for early learning centers; $1 million for truancy programs; and $1.7 million more for UDC.

Some of this funding comes from savings DC has enjoyed from reducing the number of special education children who are getting education outside of DC. If the District doesn't have educational facilities for special needs, it has to pay to send the students elsewhere, at great cost; according to Gray's chief of staff Chris Murphy, this has declined from $168 million per year when he took office to about $30 million, largely thanks to capacity at DCPS and charters to serve these children.

We will have more on the education budget in coming weeks.


Tackling truancy, part 3: The solution is collaboration

This is the third installment of a series on truancy in DC schools. Read part 1 and part 2.

Truancy isn't a new problem, nor one unique to DC. School systems around the country have tried various approaches that leverage state services and civil society to engage the child and their family on many levels. Many have been able to take a bite out of chronic truancy.

Truancy. Image from EducationNext

In the end, however, truancy isn't the problem; it is a symptom of social dysfunction that requires a comprehensive social policy response. There's nothing wrong with treating symptoms; many become a problem unto themselves. However, lasting success won't come until someday we address underlying issues of poverty, alienation, community collapse, and educational failure.

Before considering those more comprehensive programs, let's address the common trope of simply employing a "tough love" punitive approach with the children themselves.

Washington State's punishments haven't reduced truancy

Washington State passed the so-called "Becca Bill" in 1995, a law that required prosecuting children after 7 absences in a month or 10 in a year. Children could get sentences of up to 7 days in juvenile hall.

In 2005, 15,000 children went to court, and that number hasn't decreased materially in years. This shows that this policy isn't solving truancy. There's no evidence to suggest the numbers declined soon after the law was implemented either; on the contrary, it appears Becca's Bill may have made things worse, with rates rising consistently through the Aughts.

The results of a punitive approach in Washington State.
Graphic from a report by the Washington State Center for Court Research.

Denver's approach goes inside the school

Another option is to have disciplinary procedures inside the school for truancy. Many jurisdictions have tried this, including DC. DCPS apathy undermined such an effort here, but Denver's program is considered a model. Their Student Attendance Review Boards contain representatives of social services, probation, juvenile justice, police, local businesses and civic leaders, school staff, parents, and city officials.

With wide-ranging options derived from the resources of these various organizations, the board is able to develop "contracts" with the child and their family that leverage support services throughout the community to resolve the family's troubles. Significantly, the cost of this program is rather low; the Denver boards must only convince one out of every 739 truants to stay in school and graduate in order to pay for itself.

The CMPI model. Graphic from a report by the DC Crime Policy Institute.

DC's approach: build connections to social service agencies

DC tried a related approach that was unconnected to its in-school court experience: the Truancy Case Management Partnership Initiative (CMPI), which excluded the judiciary, police, and prosecutors, but included CFSA, DCPS staff, and the Healthy Families/Thriving Communities collaborative.

The goal was less a contract-oriented approach than to create "linkage" between children and their families to various services. This would, officials hoped, reduce the pressures the children were experiencing and facilitate attendance.

The pilot met with mixed success. It achieved its intermediate goal of lowering pressure on the families, and the families that qualified were indeed under immense strain. Some have suggested that is reason enough to continue, but the program was terminated after truancy rates did not respond significantly.

There may be reasons for this. In DC, truancy as a pattern is established in 8th grade while this program only addressed high schoolers. Perhaps catching the kids before they develop habits of cutting class would be more effective.

Further, the pilot took on the highest-truancy schools; the program may be effective, and simply unable to handle the peer-truancy feedback loop that has metastasized there. A broader test that began in 7th grade across a range of schools would be a better test of this approach.

Truancy begins in 8th grade. Image from a report by the DC Crime Policy Institute.

Minnesota's approach: Long-term contact

The "Check and Connect" program developed in Minnesota takes this coordination even further with a long-term case officer approach. If a student is truant or tardy on a regular basis, the program assigns a monitor/mentor. That person is the advocate, mentor, and service coordinator for the child and their family for two years, focusing entirely on preserving and enhancing the student's attachment to school.

The goal is to prevent a patten where the student oscillates from truancy, to successful intervention, to attendance, to benign neglect by the various institutions, and then back to truancy. As the initial conditions of school, family, and community all encouraged the child to be truant, C&C assumes those conditions will reassert themselves some time after the initial successful intervention. The long-term monitoring tries to prevent the child from returning to that pattern before it begins, allowing positive habits to have a longer period to take hold.

Will Denver's and Minnesota's programs work here?

Some combination of the Denver and Minnesota approaches seem ideal, but of course the District is a different context. Not only is it an urban school district, with all the distractions a child could want located along the walk to school, but it is one with a core of extreme poverty.

DC does not have a bell curve income distribution. Concentrated poverty in the eastern third of the city leaves children with few role models in their neighborhoods, and low expectations for themselves. This means there are fewer civic organizations whose services can be leveraged to encourage pro-social behavior, and there are many adults in this communities who are unemployed and unproductive during the same school day the child is being asked to work.

It is unlikely that these facts on the ground will change in a generation. There are few low-skill jobs in the Washington area, and those that exist often require consistent work history and a professional demeanor. After several years of unemployment, it is unlikely that adults who either lack, or possess no more than a high school diploma will ever be employed again. The children of that community must then be saved despite the negative examples all around them, which is a task that few other communities must strive against.

At the same time, the District is one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. It has resources few others can muster, and a large population of socially-conscious residents of means who can be recruited to help. Engagement with the child and family that promotes a sense of personal stake and commitment in education is the answer. It has been done before, successfully, and if DC faces a more difficult challenge it also possesses better tools.


See candidate stances on zoning update, results on truancy

After a week off, Let's Choose DC this week asked the candidates for their positions on DC's zoning update proposalsremoving parking minimums, allowing accessory dwellings, and corner stores. We also have the results of your votes on their responses on school truancy.

Results from question 8, truancy

Elissa Silverman* and Matt Frumin continued their pattern of close finishes for the top two spots, with Silverman edging out a narrow win for the second question in a row in the percentage of voters giving her response a positive score. However, she also garnered slightly more votes for "very unpersuasive" than Frumin, meaning her response garnered more strong feelings pro and con.

Patrick Mara, Anita Bonds, and Michael Brown did not participate.

This week's question covers the controversial elements of the zoning update: fewer parking minimums, accessory dwellings, and corner stores. We asked the candidates if they support these proposals; Silverman expressed some trepidation about the parking minimums at a debate in late February, and we wanted to hear directly from the candidates on this issue.

We heard from all of the canidates except Bonds and Mara. You can vote until Monday night, March 18.

Note: We have regularly reached out to District policy advocates, former candidates, and other leaders (as well as our readers broadly) to encourage people to write guest posts. Elissa Silverman took us up on that invitation on 4 occasions in 2011 and 2012.


Tackling truancy, part 2: Why won't they go to school?

Truancy is a massive obstacle to many DC kids getting a good education. Punitive threats to parents and children might be able to suppress some symptoms of truancy, but to reduce the core desire of the child to miss school we must dig deeper, and understand its cause.

Photo by on Flickr.

There are three chief categories of inputs in a child's life: their own circumstances and self-image, their relationship with their parents, and the characteristics of their school. A fourth, the surrounding community, impacts the relationship the child has with all three. Each contributes to the chance a given child will stay absent from school.

When surveys are done of the various stakeholders on the primary causes of truancy, the schools and their staff tend to blame the parents. The children generally blame the school. The parents often blame the child. Whatever insight we can gain from that set of relationships, it seems clear all play a part.

The student

The usual suspects all predict a truant child: drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, teen pregnancy. These are not the only factors at work; while significant when present, they are not common enough, early enough, to be a factor in the majority of cases (instead they are more often a downstream symptom).

Instead, educational attainmentespecially illiteracy even as early third gradeand a past history of truancy are the strongest two predictors that are somewhat internal to the child.

Another area, where both students and schools have some control, is whether they have friends who are already delinquent in some way. As we might expect, the behavior of one's peers strongly predicts of one's own behavior. Similarly, if a child is socially rejected, the likelihood of being truant skyrockets.


Unsurprisingly, child abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and general poverty in the family all make truancy more likely. Students under other pressures are less able to focus on school, are given less support and assistance at home, and are more likely to feel alienated from their teachers and fellow pupils on account of these problems.

Low levels of education on the part of the child's mother, specifically, is a strong predictor of truancy on the part of the child.

According to a 2008 study in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, truants have a much higher feeling of non-acceptance or rejection from parents than the control group. While the study doesn't explore the causes of these feelings, it does show that this is a consistent disparity, despite examining two different age groups.


Sanctions for truancy that keep a child out of class or school, such as detention and suspension, are counterproductive. Not only do they increase the total amount of class time the student misses (obviously), but they increase the probability of future truancy.

Safety is a major factor in school absence. "School refusers" feel unsafe either traveling to school or on school grounds itself, concerned for physical emotional harm. This fear might be justified, or might just stem from the child's emotional issues. But unsafe schools that are in high-crime areas, or that have a significant problem with bullying, encounter much higher rates of school refusers than other schools without these problems.

School refusal is distinct from truancy in the sense that the children involved manifest different psychosocial characteristics. However, data collected on "truancy" incorporates both populations. Despite these upstream differences, school refusal creates many of the same downstream costs as standard truancy to both the child, and the society at large.

Students who live in economically depressed communities often don't fully grasp why school is relevant. With the adults they see in their neighborhoods largely working in low-skill or informal jobs that have no educational requirements, the general argument that schooling is vital to one's future seems less credible. The possibility of careers that are more rewarding and have higher requirements seems rather distant when they know few adults socially with those professions—especially ones with they can identify with and that resemble them culturally and socioeconomically.

Interestingly, while many people generally assume that "improving schools" is a solution to this problem, a recent study found the components of such improvement are a mixed blessing.

  • High achievement standards are associated with lower truancy,
  • low student workload with higher rates of truancy, but
  • high instructional pace was also associated with higher truancy.
This suggests that simply accelerating demands on children is not necessarily a wise course.

There is no easy answer

In a later piece we will examine the best practices we find around the country to address truancy, but it seems clear that there is no easy answer to this question.

These predictors are all related; it's not clear which are causes and which are effects. At the same time none of these problems, solved in isolation, will be enough.

Most of these problems are, at least to some degree, unsolvable. Poverty will exist so long as our society is structured the way it is, and it will provoke ancillary challenges that additionally imperil the child's attendance. Some parents will prove to be poor guardians of their children, especially if they are themselves under pressure socially and/or economically.

Nevertheless, a multi-pronged anti-truancy policy will clearly want to aim significant efforts at all these contributing factors, if it should wish to significantly diminish that community's truancy rate.


Tackling truancy, part 1: Must we prosecute parents?

How can the students learn what they must, if they aren't coming to school when they must? Councilmember David Catania, chair of the newly-resurrected education committee has been asking this question. He has proposed prosecuting parents whose kids miss school. Is that the right approach? Whether it is or not, none else have suggested any alternative.

Photo by Renato Ganoza on Flickr.

In retrospect, one conspicuous question is, why hasn't this issue gotten more attention before? Truancy has been treated heretofore as an unpleasant fact of life; some children will refuse to come to school regularly in any community. As they will probably drop out eventually, why spend significant resources to coerce them to attend school?

This attitude derives from a singularly unsound assumption that the District's truancy rate is roughly comparable with similar communities, and that this rate is essentially immutable without spitpolishing the Augean stables. By one measure, DC's truancy rate is five times the national average.

Chronic truancy, which DC defines a student missing more than 21 school days—a full month's classes—without documented excuse, is rampant.

Six high schools have chronic truancy rates over 30%, according to DCPS. The Urban Institute has different numbers, and suggests that seven high schools have rates over 40% with Anacostia high reaching 66%.

These rates strongly correlate with test scores, which suggests that overall educational reform cannot be successful without addressing this issue.

Graph from the DC council.

Naturally, the effects of truancy don't end there.

  1. This may seem obvious, but children who have no history of truancy have a heightened probability of becoming chronic truants if their school has a high rate of truancy.
  2. Truants are far more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
  3. Before they do, they will test poorly; schools with high truancy rates manifest low test scores.
  4. Criminals are far more likely to have been truants.
  5. As a result of #3 and #4, truants are far more likely to have significant spells of unemployment after they reach adulthood.
Catania offers a possible solution; is it the right one?

Catania has proposed a bill to address this issue by strictly enforcing penalties for parents, should their children repeatedly be absent.

The current law has penalties, too. Should a child miss two or more days of class unexcused, his or her parents are subject under current law to a $100 fine and up to (!) 5 days in jail. This penalty is almost entirely unenforced.

Catana's bill would soften the criteria, levying penalties only after 10 days unexcused per year. However, should the child miss 20 or more days, the bill would make it mandatory to prosecute the parents. The penalties would initially only include community service and/or parenting classes, but could include jail time if the parents fail to complete their service. Parents would be able to avoid prosecution only by requesting parenting aid from Child Services.

Is punishing parents appropriate? Catania notes that there is little else to do. Directly punishing the student, through in-school or home suspension, only increases the likelihood of further truancy, and no other penalty for students has much salience.

Is there any other alternative?

The opponents of this bill—and there are manyargue that holding (often working) parents responsible for their children's attendance is unfair, and criminalizes parental difficulties rather than assisting with them. They further allege that this essentially targets the poor, as it there is a clear link between parental socioeconomic status and a child's propensity to be truant.

What they do not articulate, beyond general exhortations for better schools, is how to address the problem. At a recent hearing before the DC Council on the subject of truancy, many witnesses raised those objections to the proposal, but beyond repeated expressions of frustration from witnesses and councilmembers, none present articulated any coherent alternatives.

Perhaps Catania's bill is the best option available to address this problem. Or, perhaps it over-simplifies the issue. To think about the issue, first we must analyze a more fundamental question: Why do children become chronic truants? We'll look at that in the next part of this series.


Let's Choose tackles school truancy this week

DC might criminally charge parents whose kids miss school. Is that the right approach? What else should DC do about truancy? This week, Let's Choose DC asked the at-large candidates this question:

Photo by matthileo on Flickr.
Last year DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that DC schools are suffering from a "truancy crisis." The DC Council is now debating a bill that would increase penalties on parents for kids who chronically miss school. Should parents be held to account for when their kids miss school? How can DC ensure that students attend school consistently?

Let's Choose DC is a partnership between Greater Greater Washington, DCist, and PoPville which aims to educate voters about candidates' positions for the April 23 race for DC Council at-large. This week, we got responses from Matthew Frumin, Perry Redd, John Settles, Elissa Silverman, and Paul Zukerberg.

John Settles has been removed from the ballot after a successful challenge to his nominating petition signatures left him short of the required number. Paul Zukerberg also faced a challenge, but survived; he denounced the process and competitor Elissa Silverman, whose supporter filed both challenges.

Sadly, Patrick Mara (who serves on the State Board of Education and has made education a significant part of his platform), Anita Bonds, and Michael Brown did not respond to the question this week.

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