Lack of School Transportation in Detroit Drives Down Reading Achievements

Researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit have released two reports about student attendance and its impact on reading levels in early elementary school as well as implications for reopening after the pandemic.
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elementary school reading group
Wayne State researchers are studying chronic absenteeism among elementary school students and its effect on reading levels. They hope their results will inform schools on reopening practices following the COVID-19 pandemic. // Stock photo

Researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit have released two reports about student attendance and its impact on reading levels in early elementary school as well as implications for reopening after the pandemic.

The research, led by Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, assistant professor and a faculty member in educational leadership and policy studies in the Wayne State University College of Education and director of the Detroit Education Research Partnership, is part of a bigger effort to identify and address the root barriers to education parents and students face in Detroit.

The first report, “Third Grade Reading and Attendance in Detroit,” examines the connection between early childhood absenteeism and third grade reading in Detroit as well as the potential impact of Michigan’s third grade reading law.

The Read by Grade Three Law was passed by the Michigan legislature in 2016 and requires schools to identify learners who are struggling with reading and writing and provide additional help. Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, students in the third grade who were more than one grade level behind in reading may have to repeat third grade.

Major findings of the first report include:

  • Being chronically absent is a stronger predictor of third grade reading achievement than demographics such as race and income in Detroit.
  • Each year of being chronically absent in kindergarten through third grade is associated with a 26 percent increase in the probability of being eligible for retention under the third grade reading law.
  • If the law had been in effect in 2018-2019, 14.5 percent of third grade students in Detroit public and charter schools, or more than 1,000 students, would have been eligible for possible retention. Because the law was not in effect, 229 students were retained.

The second report, “Why Do Detroit Students Miss School: Implications for Returning to School after COVID-19,” explores barriers to school attendance from the perspective of parents and students.

Researchers discovered that:

  • Transportation was the most frequent and pervasive barrier to attendance, with parents describing the absence of school-provided transportation for most students as well as a lack of reliable primary methods to get to school and a lack of backup options.
  • Health issues such as chronic health conditions and mental health played a role in student absenteeism.
  • The report provides implications for the return to school after the pandemic, as well as recommendations for what school, community, and government leaders need to work on to reduce chronic absenteeism in Detroit.

Both reports are part of a series of studies on chronic absenteeism and student attendance conducted by the Detroit Education Research Partnership, a collaboration between the College of Education’s faculty and community organizations working to improve Detroit schools.

“These reports help crystallize the unjust conditions that Detroit families face in accessing education and demonstrate that failure to improve conditions for school attendance will continue to have devastating consequences for our students’ educational futures,” Lenhoff says. “We hope state and local policymakers, education leaders, advocates, and others will review our results and use them to address systemic barriers to school attendance and engagement, especially as students head back to school after the pandemic.”

The full reports are available here.

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