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Are Your Schools Tracking Absenteeism the Right Way?

Better data is helping schools find new ways to keep kids in classrooms.

absent students
(Flickr/Melinda Taber)
You can’t manage a problem you don’t see. In the case of school absenteeism, many school systems across the country were lulled for a long time into a false sense of accomplishment by data suggesting that almost all the kids in their schools were in their seats. That is, schools were experiencing average daily attendance rates in excess of 90 percent.

And yet, as it turns out, that statistic obscured the real story. Some of the students in the schools had chronic absentee rates of 25 percent or higher. As Elizabeth Dabney, director for research and policy analysis at the Data Quality Campaign, explains it, “Most kids come to school every day. But the average daily attendance masks the fact that some children are missing so many days that they are academically at risk.”

Here’s the problem: Looking at the wrong data points can hinder a government’s ability to address an issue. If a school doesn’t have a solid sense of its pupil-by-pupil absentee rates, there’s little way for it to attack the greater issue. Put simply, for schools to have success with their students, the students “need to be present,” says Charlene Russell-Tucker, chief operating officer for the Connecticut Department of Education.

As opposed to truancy or unexcused absences, chronic absenteeism rarely drew much attention before 2006. But that year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation commissioned research to find out if poor attendance in kindergarten and first grade was contributing to the lack of reading success in third grade. Out of the data pulled together in that effort, an organization called Attendance Works was launched to focus on the issue. “In 2006, if you asked schools whether they were monitoring chronic absenteeism, they didn’t know what you were talking about,” says Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. 

Now they do. A body of research at several universities including Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Indiana University and the University of Utah has highlighted the long-term impact of absenteeism. The studies have also identified why younger children at the primary school level miss school. Reasons include a lack of transportation, parental illnesses and family problems, such as substance abuse, mental illness or homelessness. Missing a couple of days every month or 18 days over the course of a school year puts a child at risk of falling behind. One study in Chicago, for instance, found that ninth-grade attendance was stronger than any other factor in predicting who would and wouldn’t finish high school.

Fortunately, armed with the appropriate data, there’s a lot that can be done to address the problem. Sometimes, inexpensive steps can help. For example, many schools and school districts have successfully used text messages or reminder postcards to parents to help them realize absences are adding up and undermining classroom success.  

According to Attendance Works, Connecticut has moved farther ahead in tackling chronic absence than any other state. Its effort is supported by a 2015 state law that requires selected school districts and schools to put together attendance teams. In addition, the state’s Education Department is required to include chronic absenteeism data in the state’s educational accountability system.

But beyond the law, the Connecticut approach incorporates many elements that have guided successful management efforts in other fields. For starters, leadership is key. In Connecticut, the governor talked about chronic absenteeism at press events. Training in schools was accelerated 

and supplemented by a comprehensive guide and webinars that show teachers and administrators how to approach the issue. The Department of Education established a point person to focus entirely on chronic absenteeism. It also encouraged school districts to reach out to community groups and local government departments that could aid efforts to get kids in school. This included mental health centers, social workers and even public works departments, which sped up snow removal to make sure kids got to class.

There’s been a big emphasis in Connecticut and elsewhere on finding and sharing creative ways of dealing with the issue. In some schools, for instance, missing school has been tracked to homelessness and the absence of clean clothes to wear to school. The solution: Schools purchase a washer and dryer.

New Britain, Conn., has been a standout. The city focused on tracking and using data in individual schools; teachers and principals were trained about how to interpret regularly disseminated data. During the 2012-2013 school year, New Britain absenteeism dropped from 20 percent to 13 percent.

Statewide, the cumulative efforts have been connected to a drop from 11.5 percent in 2012-2013 to 9.6 percent in 2015-2016. “We’re all working together,” says Russell-Tucker. “You can’t close the opportunity and achievement gap without students being in schools.”  

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