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Absenteeism Costs Schools Money. A Simple Change Can Reduce It.

It involves tweaking the tone and the look of letters home to parents.

Empty seats in classroom


  • 14% of students are chronically absent.
  • Absenteeism costs schools money.
  • A mail-based intervention has reduced truancy in Chicago, Philadelphia and California's San Mateo County.
When kids miss school, it's not just their grades that suffer.

For nearly a quarter of school districts in the country, truancy has a fiscal impact on education. Schools in California, Kentucky and Texas, for example, operate on an average daily attendance formula that deducts state funding from a school for each day a student misses class. In the 2016-2017 school year, truancy cost the Los Angeles Unified School District $20 million.

When presidential hopeful Kamala Harris took the reigns as attorney general in California, she took a tough-on-parent approach to truancy. The now U.S. senator backed a 2011 law that allowed parents to be fined up to $2,000 or face a year in jail if their child was absent more than 10 percent of the school year. (Harris eventually softened her stance amid pushback.)

The issue of truancy is one that plagues schools across the country. About 14 percent of all students were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year, according to Education Department data released last year.

But a simple change can increase attendance for chronically truant students.

When kids are absent, schools are required by state law to notify parents. In California, the notification letter was weighed down with legal language and warnings about the consequences of truancy. Tweaking the tone and the look of the letter has helped reduce chronic absenteeism in the state's San Mateo County by 15 percent.

“The tone of the state-mandated letter was very threatening, and the tone of the letter we drafted asked parents to be a partner,” says Todd Rodgers, the founder of In Class Today, which helps districts increase attendance through targeted information campaigns aimed at parents of students who miss 10 to 40 days of school a year.

The new version still has that threatening language, which is mandated by state law, but it's in a smaller font and appears lower on the page. The top of the letter now has language that's easier to understand and asks parents to work with the district on attendance.

Unlike the previous letters, the new ones also inform parents about how many days their child has missed -- something Rodgers says parents often underestimate. The letter also compares students' absences to other chronically truant students -- but not to peers who rarely if ever miss class because doing so creates an unrealistic attendance goal that In The Class discovered discourages students.


Why Not Text?

In the era of text messages, push alerts and email, Rodgers says snail mail is the best option for getting parents serious about their children's attendance.

“Texting a parent to tell their child to do their homework that night can be effective, but that won’t work for attendance,” Rodgers says. “Mail becomes a social artifact. It ends up on a refrigerator, and parents will talk to their kids about the absences.”

In Chicago and Philadelphia, these simple changes have reduced truancy by 11 percent in each district.

Rodgers doesn’t position the strategy as a solution to wholesale absenteeism but says it addresses a portion of the truant population and allows districts to direct more intensive interventions toward students who miss more than 40 days per year.

“The program works around the edges,” he says.


'Not Enough Data'

Children in kindergarten and ninth grades miss the most days of school per year, and absenteeism is connected to poorer scores in reading and math, according to the Economic Policy Institute. 

“Missing school matters. If you compare the performance of kids who miss school and the performance of kids who don’t miss school, there is a difference,” says Emma Garcia, who researched the economics of education for the Economic Policy Institute. “The effects of missing school compound over time. However there is not enough data to examine this longitudinally.”

More data on absenteeism is coming. President Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to pick at least one metric to measure student performance and commit strategies to address the issue; 36 states and the District of Columbia have picked attendance.

“I am positive," says Garcia, "that when states commit to paying attention and measuring absenteeism, that will be helpful in finding solutions.”

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