Schools across the country are struggling with chronic student absenteeism, and more are now using absences as a measure of school culture in accountability reports to the U.S. Department of Education.
Education researchers believe the solution to addressing the problem requires simple steps to involve parents and the community, and are encouraging schools to move away from punitive punishments that have failed in the past.
Available data shows more than 7 million students miss at least 15 school days per year, and in nearly 10,000 schools at least 30 percent of students are chronically absent, which is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, Education Week reports.
In the past, the measure served as an indicator that something is wrong with a student or school, and often foreshadowed future academic struggles including students being held back or failing to graduate high school.
Now, many states are ramping up efforts to address the problem by including student absences in yearly federal reports required through the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires states to report chronic absenteeism, but roughly three-quarters of states are including the metric as a measure of school quality in an attempt to improve academic outcomes, according to the news site.
“First and foremost, you have to show up to learn,” Angelo Gonzales, director of the nonprofit Mission: Graduate told the Albuquerque Journal. “It is also about engagement. We want kids to be present and deeply engaged in their learning.”
In Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, roughly 25 percent of high school students are habitually truant. It’s a similar story nationwide.
In Oregon, the percentage of chronically absent students statewide increased from 17.4 percent a few years ago to nearly 20 percent last year, The Daily Astorian reports.
In Oregon’s Seaside School District, 24 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of the school year, and other districts like Knappa and Jewell schools were close behind with chronic absentee rates eclipsing 20 percent.
“We know that students who attend school regularly have more opportunity to learn, so tracking chronic absenteeism is critical,” acting state Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill told the news site. “There is a direct link between high instances of chronic absenteeism and low graduation rates. This is why chronic absenteeism is one of our school accountability measures in our Oregon Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act and why Gov. (Kate) Brown and the Legislature have invested in programs to address the issue.”
In Oregon, the state invested $7.4 million over the next two years to improve attendance and graduation rates. Other states including North Carolina are also considering absenteeism as a metric for ESSA plans.
A recent study by the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation reveals the problem often starts early in students’ academic careers. In North Carolina, one in eight elementary school students miss 15 days or more of school, Duke University professor Philip Cook and Georgetown University’s Phyllis Jordan wrote in a recent editorial for the Charlotte Observer.
But Jordan and Cook point out that solutions for getting students to come to class regularly aren’t exactly rocket science.
In one school, administrators gave teachers of first-and second-grade students prepaid cell phones to keep regular contact with parents, and encouraged educators to visit students and their parents at home at the beginning of the year.
According to Jordan and Cook:
The results of the experiment in one North Carolina school district were positive: Student absenteeism dropped by an average of 10 percent, and parents were twice as likely to contact teachers—whether through texts or calls—as parents in other classrooms.
A report from the nonprofit Attendance Works titled “Portraits of Change” highlights other relatively simple models deployed elsewhere to cut down on chronic absenteeism.
“Cleveland, for example, brought its chronic absence rate down from 35 percent to 29 percent in a year by enlisting a wide array of education and community partners. Cleveland's attendance campaign included phone banking and outreach, incentives, professional development for teachers, and mentoring for students struggling with attendance. Long Beach, Calif., engaged the entire community, including its health professionals, in its campaign to cut absenteeism across the board,” Education Week reports.
“New Britain, Conn., deployed additional outreach workers to help cut kindergarten chronic absenteeism in half within two years. When attendance climbed in those New Britain kindergarten classrooms, so did the scores on literacy tests.”
“Chronic absenteeism, more than any academic indicator, is something parents, teachers, and the community can improve if they use data to target action and address barriers to getting to school,” Education Week reports. “Fortunately, public data will be more available than ever before for scrutiny. And the inclusion of the metric in state accountability plans brings an added urgency to getting more kids to school every day.”
The common theme of several successful efforts have focused on positive encouragement, rather than past practices such as fines, suspensions or jail time for parents of chronically absent students.
Importantly, the most successful strategies for getting students to class require involving parents and the community as a whole in the problem-solving process. As James Davison Hunter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, "Moral education can work where the community, and schools and other institutions within it, share a moral culture that is integrated and mutually reinforcing; where the social networks of adult authority are strong, unified, and consistent in articulating moral ideals and their attending virtues; and where adults maintain a 'caring watchfulness' over all aspects of a young person's maturation."
By involving family culture, school administrators are able to create a stronger school culture. Bringing parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders together is critical for other important initiatives, such as student character education programs.