Relationship of Research and Policy

The sad fact of the matter is that research is rarely taken seriously within the policy-making arena.  It is well-known that research can be bought for the right price and research is not easily accessible to policy-makers and the general public. But what is known through research SHOULD be used to inform policy change, with all the uncertainty that comes with it.  To foster a connection between the two, transparency and communication is needed. 

To be clear, in this circumstance, I am talking almost exclusively about social science research, which can, and has, been interpreted and used in so many different ways.  However, social science research is so important because it tells us what people think and feel, which itself is so fluid and varied between people that generalizations are EXTREMELY difficult to make- in my opinion, this is a reason that it is so difficult to understand research without the fluid mindset of a researcher.  Researchers, in general, have a more flexible idea of what is “fact”, which includes ideas such as standard deviations and 95% confidence intervals.  Also, which may be unusual to people from different fields, researchers are very aware of their limitations and know that they can be proven wrong at any point.  If research does not conclusively prove anything, then how are policy-makers supposed to use such an inexact science it to inform policy?  This is where transparency is essential.  Research should be brokered collaboratively between different groups and academics to best understand the problem and outcomes from a well-rounded perspective that will best represent how an issue should be tackled.  There is no use to researchers being covetous with their ideas and results if they want to help people.  It is known that research experiments must be conducted and replicated in a variety of settings and undergo a peer-review process to find for flaws in reasoning and/or execution.  Only in this kind of environment can research be useful in influencing policy in a way that will provide benefit to the most people.  

Transparency with policy-makers is at the other end of the equation.  Being open and honest about what research actually means and how the results can be used to help the most people is the only way for policy-makers to make the best use of the research done.  This honest and open communication also works in the other direction.  If policy-makers would openly communicate with researchers the needs that they see in their communities, researchers can identify ways to fill those needs.

Policy often-times follows what is a trend at that time, currently tackling issues that are popular in the media.  For example, marriage equality and gun control laws are very much in the public eye right now.  This is the perfect time to create policy and change policy in regards to these issues.  Policy-makers can use their skills to identify what research is needed in time to best inform the policy decisions they have to make regarding laws in the now.  

 

 

This is a theory that I am crafting of how to best merge the work of research and policy, and welcome any feedback in regards to feasibility and implementation.

 

 

Chronic Absenteeism: Policy Memo

CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM: CAUSES, EFFECTS AND PREVENTION

Overview

Chronic absenteeism is commonly defined as missing 10 percent of the school year, about 18 days, included excused and unexcused absences. In the U.S, schoolchildren are suffering from lower rates of achievement due to chronic absenteeism.  Between 10-15% of youth are chronically absent each year.  Balfanz and Byrnes (2012) estimate that roughly 5-7.5 million students across the U.S. grades K-12 are not attending school regularly each year. It is evidenced across the country, within every age and racial group, though it persists most heavily with students from low-income families.

Effects of Chronic Absenteeism

Absenteeism can directly affect success later in life.  Specifically, studies show that for every week a child misses school, their test scores lower incrementally, most significantly in math (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012).  Also, missing too much school can affect high school graduation rates as well as college matriculation rates (Kieffer, Marinell, & Stephenson, 2011).  Even without improvements to the American education system, just being a persistent attendee at school will significantly higher chances of success (Balfanz & Byrnes 2012).  It doesn’t matter if students’ absences are excused or unexcused, because it’s the time away that matters. Most significantly affected are those that are chronically absent for several years, not just chronically absent for one year (Kieffer, Marinell, & Stephenson, 2011).

This problem most highly affects families of lower income and those in special education classes.   These populations also most benefit from being in school, since many do not have the appropriate supports at home in order to learn outside of school.  The track to leaving a lower-income situation includes obtaining a higher education.  This makes education an even greater priority for this population (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012).

Causes of Chronic Absenteeism         

            There is currently no mechanism in place to monitor and report chronic absenteeism in the U.S.  Only six states keep track of and report their statistics; Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon, and Rhode Island (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012). Chang and Romero (2008) carefully outline the main causes for absenteeism which are rooted in three areas: school, family, and community.

School can be seen as an unsafe place that the child does not want to go to.  If the child is a victim of bullying, or if they are in constant fear of reading out loud or being called on in class, they will do whatever they can to remain at home and not face others at school.  Transitions to new schools or starting a new school year may cause anxiety, making school an unfriendly environment. Schools must also be engaging their students, or risk causing the students to become bored and more likely to feel as though missing some school will not significantly impact their learning. Among older students, having no one to account for their absences at school can motivate them to skip classes more often.

Suspensions also play a factor in student attendance. Taking students out of the structured environment of school disrupts education and escalates poor behavior, making it more difficult to succeed (Cregor & Hewitt, 2011).  Because of this, suspensions have become a predictor for future misbehavior and more suspensions (Arts, Bahl,….& Thomas, 2011).

The family may be going through any of many difficult situations that would cause children to miss periods of school; housing instability, job instability, lack of reliable  transportation, inadequate health care, lack of clean or appropriate clothing, entrance into the foster care system, etc. Issues at home severely affect a child’s performance in school before we even consider how insufficiently they are educated when they start missing classes.
Starting in Kindergarten, transitioning to attending a public school is difficult for the entire family causing many absences in the initial year that taper off as the family adjusts.  Other families may allow their children to miss school, not understanding the importance of attending school every day, even at such a young age.  However, this remains harmful to the child’s education, as Kindergarten builds many foundational skills needed for their later education.

The community as a whole may be providing a culture that does not attend to children’s need of education.  Escalating community violence, schools placed in unsafe areas, development of a culture that devalues education; these all lead to an environment that denies children’s access to decent education.

What Efforts Are Being Made to End Chronic Absenteeism

There are several organizations aimed towards curtailing the amount of chronic absenteeism in the U.S.  Attendance Works is an organization that works nationally and statewide to implement better attendance policies in schools and earlier interventions with families and communities when they see chronic absenteeism occurring.  They have worked with five states in the past to further policy initiatives with some success.  Their model includes several aspects needed to make a real impact on changing how much chronic absenteeism affects children.  Attendance Works combines a public awareness campaign, provides tools to track the data of students that are chronically absent, and builds policy to work with an issue that covers many different aspects (Attendance Works, 2010).

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has created the Taskforce on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism, and School Engagement.  To fight chronic absenteeism, he has initiated a wide range of interventions.  Their largest initiative is a mentoring program that has helped many students become accountable for whether they attend school or not.  This effectively helps many students understand the importance of attending school and getting a good education and also helps students make the decision to come to school.  Because of the success achieved, Bloomberg has widened the group participating for this year (Cramer, 2012).  Mayoral interest has helped improve inter-agency cooperation to respond to the issue of chronic absenteeism (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012).

What Work is to be Done

Chronic absenteeism is a national problem and national policy could be utilized to insure the issue is dealt with across the board.  However, many issues will need to be addressed and a “fix” to the problem will take some time and effort.

A program that is to effectively deal with the problem of chronic absenteeism must include many different parts.  A good program would include 1) a tool to monitor and report student chronic absenteeism; 2) early intervention when a school sees a problem starting, initiating an open communication with the family; 3) effective ways of dealing with issues in families and in the community in a culturally competent way; 4) comprehensive networks of outside resources available for the community; 5) policy engagement to address issues consistently (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012).

 

References

Arts, A., Bahl, T., Foster, T., Miller, J., Ofer, U., Phenix, D., Sheehan, N.,& Thomas, H. (2011). Education interrupted. The New York Civil Liberties Union.  New York, NY:US

Attendance Works (2010). About. Attendance Works. Retrieved from http://www.attendanceworks.org/about/

Balfanz, R. & Byrnes, V. (2012). Chronic Absenteeism : Summarizing What We Know From Nationally Available Data.  John Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Chang, H., Romero, M. (2008). Present, Engaged, and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades. National Center for Children in Poverty. New York, NY.

Cramer, P. (2012 September 12). More students get attendance mentors in program’s third year. Gotham Schools.  Retrieved from http://gothamschools.org/2012/09/12/morestudents-get-attendance-mentors-in-programs-third-year/

Cregor, M. & Hewitt, D. (2011) Dismantling the school to prison pipeline. Poverty & Race. 20(1),5-7.

Kieffer, M., Marinell, W., & Stephensen, N. (2011). The Middle Grades Students Transitions Study: Navigating the Middle Grades and Preparing Students for High School  Graduation. The Research Alliance for New York City Schools. New York, NY.

Closing Schools

Education in the U.S. has become quite the hot topic, not in the least because of President Obama’s renewed emphasis on education issues such as universal Pre-K and making college more affordable. Education is important. we know this as a growing percent of the population is getting more and more advanced degrees, as a matter of norm.

The issue I want to talk about today is the policy of closing down poorly performing public schools, made popular by NYC Mayor Bloomberg and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.  The policy is couched in business theory, which tells us that if something is not working, shutting it down and putting that money towards something that is working is a better use of funds and resources.  This theory is not incorrect in itself, but fails to take into account the people, school staff and students, are affected by the process of closing schools down.

Full disclosure, I work at a not-for-profit that partners with poorly performing public schools to help them turn around before their school is forced to close.  I have spent a year here as an intern and have decided to stay on as an employee past my year-long contract, because of my belief in their mission.  I have seen first hand the difficulties involved in turning a school around, not limited to resistant staff, poor school climate,lack of family engagement, violence in schools, and many other issues involved with having a school where many students are living in poverty.  Even with all these difficulties, I sincerely believe that working within the schools and pouring in resources is the best for the students in the end, though the amount of time and money is significant.

When a school under-performs, the school is given a warning and a limited amount of time for the school to improve, before they are shut down.  This school is often not given any extra support in order to improve their school, so that even schools with the best intentions cannot do enough to change.  At this point, many in a school lose hope and give up.  However, WHENEVER a school is slated to close, parents and other members of the community come out to advocate for their closing school.  Schools are a part of the community, they define a part of every family that becomes involved in the school.  Seeing a part of their community go down like that, with no chance of fixing and getting better, hurts many families.

When schools are slated to close, the school does not allow any new students to enroll, but allows the remaining students stay until they graduate (at least in NYC, not sure about other areas).  In this way, the schools “phase out”.  Keeping the students in a school that is phasing out understandably causes a fall in morale.  How can students place any hope in their education if their government doesn’t, when the DOE tells them they are not worth the effort to improve their schools to give them each a good education.  The students are left in schools that are emptying with out of date resources, though they are expected to compete with others in their age range when they move to the next school.

This doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of school staff that will become unemployed, trying to find positions in newly opening schools.  In an era where teacher( and other staff positions) evaluations are so often linked to test scores, how are teachers supposed to get re-hired at new schools, when many employers will see that they were last employed in a school that failed? There may be openings at newly opening schools, but this doesn’t guarantee them a position.  This kind of job instability creates more stress on school staff and could negatively affect school climate, and in turn negatively affect the students’ quality of life.

Large amounts of research has been done that proves that doing well in school improves chances at later success. I do not believe that this is contested. Because of this, I believe that all children deserve the same chances of later success through equal access to a good education.  In those poorly performing schools, interventions can be used to improve school climate, change school-wide policies, teacher trainings, linkages to mental health resources, any number of things to be used to improve the functioning of the school.  But all of these interventions take time to work, and oftentimes cost money.  Increasing supports in order for schools to change is essential in turning a school around.  Taking away resources for schools that are performing poorly should not even be considered as a viable option, if only for the sake of the children.

In the time since school closings have been used in U.S. public schools, there has been not been enough evidence to support that this actually works.  The funds that take away from poorly performing schools and channel towards newly opened schools to replace the old school often changes nothing.  The new school fails in the way the old school did, because nothing has changed in the way the schools are operated.  Because of these failures in the public school system, more and more families are turning towards charter schools, which are privately run, but publicly funded, or more expensive private schools, to ensure a better quality education.  It is my opinion that U.S. citizens should not have to turn to these other options to make sure that our children are receiving a good education.  Quality education is a right of all U.S. citizens, which is why all students are required to attend school (though it is each person’s right to decide in which way they will educate their children).  Families from low-income families fare the worst, because they are most likely to be educated in a poorly performing schools, and therefor be under-educated.  Being under-educated contributes a lot to living below the poverty level, keeping certain citizens from a better quality of life.

This issue connects to many other issues that I am concerned with, including welfare, poverty, program evaluation, child welfare, and charter schools.  So stay tuned for more posts regarding all of these issues!