The Most Important Education Reform: Reducing Absenteeism

Achievement and graduation rates are not going to improve if students are not showing up for school. It's an issue that's finally getting a lot of attention.
by | November 4, 2013
 

Educational initiatives ranging from increasingly rigorous teacher evaluations to national Common Core standards to STEM and early-childhood literacy programs are gaining rapid momentum. All of these approaches, and more, can have a hand in holistically reforming and improving our schools. But the reality is that if students do not first show up on time to school every day, these innovative programs and reforms will be lost on them.

While research shows that attendance is one of three key predictors of high-school graduation as early as sixth grade, 7.5 million students nationwide miss an entire month of school annually. In New York City, the nation's largest school district, 20 percent of students miss a month each year. Until as recently as five years ago, attendance was not even accurately recorded in cities as large as Washington, D.C.

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Many factors contribute to these high rates of absenteeism, but one of the greatest is family engagement. Regardless of socioeconomic status, it is the most important factor in children's academic success. Yet parents and families, particularly in underserved communities in which up to 50 percent of children are chronically absent from school, are often uniformed of their children's attendance and academic standing until it is too late. A Gates Foundation study reported that 71 percent of recent dropouts thought that increased communication with their families would the best way to have kept them in school. Of those dropouts, less than 47 percent reported that their families were informed when they had been absent.

The good news is that there is increasing recognition of the importance of school attendance. Government leaders are talking about the issue: California Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for example, recently co-wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed column on the need for accountability to address absenteeism. Lawmakers are holding school districts accountable for attendance and linking their state funding to improvement. And nonprofit and for-profit organizations are collaborating to provide education about these problems and tools to help solve them.

These collaborations are going a long way toward bringing the attendance crisis into the public consciousness. Public awareness campaigns financed by governments, private donors and nonprofits are popping up across the country, from Newark to Minneapolis to Sacramento. City initiatives, such as New York City's Mayor's Task Force on Truancy and Absenteeism, are drawing on research from nonprofits like Attendance Works and piloting tools to promote attendance and family engagement. Nonprofits including Get Schooled are educating students about attendance in partnership with community-based programs such as City Year.

The Grad Nation initiative has set a goal of increasing national high-school completion rates from the current 75 percent to 90 percent by 2020. Closing a 15-percentage-point gap is just seven years won't be easy, and improving attendance alone will not close the nation's achievement gap. But by working together to ensure that all students are in school all day every day, government, the public and the private sectors each can have a hand in providing our youth with the basic opportunity to learn.

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