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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

It is now late October. Have any of your students already missed more than a month of school? Are any on track to? Can you even know?

Educators understand the importance of school attendance -- as we often say, "You can't teach an empty desk." And schools have mechanisms in place to track it, including average daily attendance (ADA) and truancy. But neither of those measures addresses chronic absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year -- approximately 18 days a year, or just two days every month. And across the nation, 5 to 7.5 million students are chronically absent.

While this issue is more often discussed at the middle and high school level (and is quite important there, as chronic absence in middle school is a clear predictor of dropping out, and by ninth grade, attendance is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores), it surprisingly relevant to elementary schools -- and even preschools -- as well. Nationally, one in 10 kindergarten and first grade students miss the equivalent of a month of school -- in some schools and districts, it is as many as one in four. And new research out of Chicago indicates that the problem is even larger in preschool, with almost half of three-year-olds and more than one-third of four-year-olds chronically absent.

Missing school -- at whatever level -- has consequences for children. The Chicago research found that students who are chronically absent in preschool end the year with lower skills, as measured by the district's kindergarten readiness tool, than those who attend (and kindergarten readiness is linked to later academic success). Other research has shown that chronic absence in kindergarten and first grade leads to lower performance in third grade, which is tied to decreased attendance in sixth and ninth grade and an increased risk of dropping out.

Chronic absenteeism is clearly important to address at all levels. So why don't we talk about it more? Because we often don't know the true situation in our community. ADA can mask chronic absenteeism, and while the definition of truancy varies by state, it typically only counts unexcused absences. Particularly in the lower grades, a child who is absent often has an adult's permission.

What Can Educators Do?

At whatever level you work, the first step in addressing chronic absenteeism is collecting the right data. Attendance Works provides free data tools to help identify patterns of chronic absence (who is missing school?), examine the factors affecting it (why are they missing school?) and assess where your school is on engaging in the practices known to help improve overall attendance.

Once you have identified where concerns about chronic absenteeism lie, you may recognize that certain groups of students have attendance issues that you can work to address as a school community. However, be prepared to take a student by student approach to addressing attendance, helping individual students overcome the barriers they face to coming to school (for example, housing instability, a lack of effective transportation options, childcare issues, bullying concerns and more). Your school or district may want to form an attendance team that meets regularly to discuss at-risk students and follow up on plans to improve their attendance.

In general, be prepared to see students missing school for reasons connected to a number of social issues, particularly in the younger grades. Consider forming school-community partnerships (for example, with community health groups, transit departments or mentoring organizations) to address these issues and help boost attendance.

Prevention Is Key

The best way to address chronic absenteeism is before it becomes an issue. All educators should work to make sure their schools are places that students want to be -- safe, supportive and engaging environments where students feel welcome and valued. Other tips to address attendance issues at a large scale:

  • Communicate with students. Help students see the importance of attendance on their educational futures. Celebrate attendance (for example, with certificates for good and improving attendance and raffling off prizes for students who attend regularly)
  • Strengthen after-school programs. Students in after-school programs attend more school than their peers, according to some research
  • Develop new attendance goals. Often school attendance goals are based on ADA. Add new goals based on chronic absenteeism

Particularly for educators at the younger grades: Communicate with parents. While family engagement is crucial at all levels, it is particularly important in the lower grades. Many parents do not see the impact of their child's attendance prior to high school on their futures. Let them know the statistics (this infographic and this research summary can help).

Particularly for educators at the upper levels: Reach down to feeder schools. Gathering attendance data on incoming students to target interventions appropriately from the first day. This may mean working with feeder schools to ensure they track the right data.

(Tips were adapted from materials by National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and Attendance Works.)

The Bottom Line

Attendance is a critical aspect of student -- and school -- success. And in building a culture that celebrates it, we must look beyond traditional measures to make sure we identify issues with chronic absenteeism. If we don't look specifically for them, they might never come to light.

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Paul Smith's picture
Paul Smith
Director of Marketing for LearnSprout

Excellent and timely article Anne. It's good to see the issue of chronic absenteeism gaining broader awareness. One thing to point out is that typically, most administrators don't have the ability to pull attendance data and if they do, they often lack the expertise required to analyze the data they end up with. For this reason I am compelled to share our tool which allows administrators to quickly spot students who either are chronically absent, or are on pace to be classified as chronically absent. LearnSprout is free and takes just a couple minutes to set up.

KarenNemeth's picture
KarenNemeth
Early childhood education author/consultant

I am concerned with the way this, and other, posts about recent concerns about absenteeism are placing too much emphasis on analyzing data. I really think the focus needs to be on the individual children and families. Teachers and school staff need to be more in touch with the people than the numbers with strategies like these: http://languagecastle.com/wordpress/?p=327 . This is most extremely important when you work with families from different language and cultural backgrounds.

Paul Smith's picture
Paul Smith
Director of Marketing for LearnSprout

Completely agree Karen. It might seem that many of us have been getting carried away with the potential for data, but we should not be misconstrued. At the end of the day it comes down to the human connection and a deep understanding of what's driving attendance. In a perfect world, we'd have all classrooms with a 20:1 ratio and enough time to get to know students better. Until that day comes, we can use data to identify which students are struggling the most. There is low hanging fruit in data that can help educators focus limited resources (money, time, attention) and answer questions like:

- Who are our chronically absent students?
- Which teachers are earning the most absences from their students?
- Which courses historically have earned the most absences?
- What week of the year are students most likely to be sick?
- Is there a geographic area where students live that is earning the most absences?
- What grade levels are earning the most attendance?
- What is the correlation between grades and attendance?
- Which period of the day is best to schedule Algebra?

Most of these of course, lead to the most important question: Why? Data is not the end-all be all, but it's a start to help us better understand where to look for answers. I am willing to bet that what we ultimately discover from data is more nuanced and complex than what can be solved with broad, campus or district-wide initiatives.

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance
Blogger

Karen,

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your concern. But I tend to view data more the way that Paul does - as a starting point to help us figure out how best to address issues that impact both communities and individual students.

Example: If a student misses three days of school a month, it might not seem like a big deal - she is there most days. But if we are using data and realize she is on track to miss more than a month of school in total, we then know we need to dig deeper into her individual circumstance. Maybe she is having frequent asthma attacks, or maybe she is missing school on days when her mom has to work a double shift. Whatever the reason, once we have identified the issue, we can help her address the challenges she is facing. Without the initial data, though, we won't even know to look.

Of course, as Paul pointed out, "In a perfect world, we'd have all classrooms with a 20:1 ratio and enough time to get to know students better." And we as educators must continue to advocate for the conditions we know are needed to optimize learning for each child. But until those are conditions in place, we can use data to guide our limited resources to where they will do the most good.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Teacher and front office contact with parents is also an effective key to prevent absenteeism.

Nicole Dewell's picture

Thank you for the helpful tools. It breaks my heart to see some students chronically absent. I have had several high school students like that and I worry so much that not only are they missing education but that they are creating bad habits which will hamper them in college and in keeping jobs in the future. Your ideas are fantastic.

Cynthia Pilar's picture
Cynthia Pilar
doctoral student

I agree that we must look beyond the data to truly uncover what is happening in a student's life that is preventing school attendance. We often conduct home visits and uncover situations where students are babysitting for absent parents, or worse, living in conditions that require child protective services to intervene. School personnel can often be the child's only advocate for change and it behooves us to thoroughly investigate all potential impediments to attendance.

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