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By Robert Balfanz and Hedy Nai-Lin Chang

The premise is simple: Students need to attend school daily to succeed. But the experience of modern American education demonstrates a reliance on basic assumptions regarding attendance that aren’t true, leading to a failure to tabulate and use simple data that could raise the educational performance of our students.

We assume in education that students—barring illness or unusual events—are in the classroom every weekday. Based on that assumption, we measure a school’s average daily attendance and its truancy. But we don’t stop to look at how many of our students are missing so many days that they are academically at risk, regardless of whether their absences are excused. Research shows that missing 10% of the school year—or 18 days in most districts—correlates with academic trouble. We call this figure “chronic absence.”

We’ve found that a school can have a 95% average daily attendance rate and still have 25% of its students chronically absent. That level of absenteeism not only affects the students who miss class, but also creates a kind of classroom churn that makes it harder for teachers to teach and other students to learn.

Nationwide, 5 –7.5 million students are chronically absent each year, a problem that contributes to higher dropout rates and wider achievement gaps. We know that more than a million teenagers drop out of high school each year in the United States, and millions more fail to develop the language and learning skills needed to sustain themselves as adults, let alone live to their full potential.

Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it’s discovered. It’s not the only factor at play, but students need to attend school daily to succeed.

Why Chronic Absence Matters

Absenteeism, especially truancy or skipping school, has always been a focus in secondary schools where principals recognize the connection to poor performance and dropout rates. Groundbreaking research published in 2008 by the National Center for Children in Poverty showed that the ill effects of chronic absence extend to kindergarten and elementary school students. That study demonstrated that chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first grade for any student, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. For low-income children, the connection to poor performance extended through fifth grade.

This is not a small problem, since the study found that one in 10 of the nation’s kindergarten and first-grade students was chronically absent. Other studies have shown that these students are more likely to fall short of attaining reading proficiency by the third grade and more likely to have poor attendance in later years.

Thus these early absences have consequences for secondary school principals, contributing to academic weaknesses and poor attendance habits that compound the intractable nature of chronic absenteeism as students progress into middle and high school. 

Chronic absenteeism begins to rise in middle school and continues climbing through 12th grade. A Baltimore study found a strong relationship between sixth-grade attendance and on-time graduation rates. Chronic absence in middle school is one of the best indicators we have that a student will drop out later. A study in Utah found that students who were chronically absent in any year between eighth and 12th grades were 7.5 times more likely to drop out of high school.

Most recently, an analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that absences had consequences for fourth- and eighth-graders: 56% of eighth-graders who performed at the advanced level in NAEP reading in 2011 had perfect attendance in the month before the test, compared with 39% of students who performed below the basic level; in contrast, nearly one in five eighth-grade students at the basic level and more than one in four below basic in reading had missed three or more days in the previous month. The trends were similar for fourth graders.

To put that in perspective, three days a month over nine months means that a student is missing five weeks of school a year.

Why Students Don’t Attend

Many absences are not about students willfully missing school, but are excused absences. And poverty plays a big role through such factors as lack of access to healthcare, unreliable transportation, and frequent moves or homelessness.

We use three categories to explain absences: discretion, aversion, and barriers. With discretion, parents and students don’t understand how much attendance matters, schools lack a strong culture of attendance, or students simply have something else they would rather do. With aversion, a child could be struggling academically, victimized by bullying,  or dealing with anxiety. And with barriers, students lack access to healthcare; have no safe path to school; lack effective transportation options; or face family responsibilities, housing instability, a need to work, or are caught up in the juvenile justice system. Clearly, within each category of absenteeism, principals are confronting serious problems but ones that can be mitigated, if not solved.

Addressing the Problem

A principal’s first step is to secure the right data. As we said, most schools track only average daily attendance and truancy, and both of those measures can mask chronic absence. Even some efforts to track chronic absence don’t go far enough, focusing on students who miss instruction on consecutive days instead of sporadically. It takes just two days a month to reach 18 days, or 10% of the school year.

A student’s report card will generally show how many days of instruction were missed, and yet schools and school districts don’t build this information into a usable data report. Attendance Works provides free, self-calculating data tools that allow schools and districts to determine patterns of chronic absenteeism. Local researchers and universities also can help with more in-depth analyses. In California, Oakland Unified School District now crunches the data for all of its schools and regularly shares the results with principals. Data analysis is a key step, setting the stage for the individual attention that can make a difference under a three-tiered approach such as the one used in Response to Intervention: broad prevention, intervention, and recovery.

Principals across the nation already are adopting the first phase, with preventive programs aimed at all students. Attendance campaigns that are vigorous and comprehensive pay off quickly and do not require significant spending. They can include simple incentives—an extra 10 points on a midterm for students with good attendance, for example—or elaborate prizes donated by local businesses, such as a car raffled off to the students who show up most regularly. Get Schooled, a national nonprofit organization, runs twice yearly contests in which schools nationwide compete to see which can best improve attendance. The winning school receives a visit from a celebrity music or sports star.

In the second tier, intervention, school administrators, and teachers use attendance data to identify students who are chronically absent or moving in that direction. Teams of professionals form within the district and the school and meet regularly to discuss at-risk students, investigating what is causing their absences through follow-up telephone calls, home visits, and meetings with parents and students. A pilot program in New York City uses mentors provided by City Year, graduate students in social work, and even school staff to pay special attention to students who need an extra push to get to school.

The third tier, recovery, can require intensive intervention in a student’s life. This can take the form of providing wraparound services for students with difficult family circumstances, arranging a special schedule for a teen mother or addressing a childcare challenge that keeps an older student home. The Los Angeles Unified School District has launched a unique partnership with the city to create youth centers where students who have dropped out or otherwise disengaged from school can reconnect to learning.

Many secondary school principals deal with chronic absence as part of a system of early warning indicators. The leading indicators are known as the ABCs: attendance, behavior, and course failure. Schools and districts track these warning signs and flag students who are having trouble in any of the areas. School-based committees—the principal, teachers, guidance counselors, and other key players—meet regularly to discuss these students and get them back on track.

The Diplomas Now program, used in 41 middle and high schools across the country, integrates this early warning approach with improvements to a school’s curriculum and instruction and support for struggling students. It unites three national nonprofits: Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development Secondary, a school reform model that improves instruction and performance; City Year’s young-adult “near peers,” who provide tutoring, reward positive behavior, and involve students in service and enrichment programs; and Communities In Schools’ case managers, who help the neediest students access community resources such as counseling, healthcare, housing, food, and clothing.

Beyond such a coordinated approach, principals can find tools to combat chronic absence on the Attendance Works website. In addition to data tools, the national nonprofit offers talking points and messaging toolkits, advice on setting up attendance teams, ideas for incentives, handouts for parents, and “What Works” stories about successful programs.

The Three Rs

Principals in middle and high schools can provide the leadership needed to address chronic absenteeism by pursuing the three Rs: Reach down. Reach out. Reach up.

Principals need to “reach down” to their feeder schools to gather data on chronic absenteeism before the sixth or ninth graders arrive for their first day of school. The best indicator that a student will be chronically absent in the coming school year is chronic absence in a previous year. So principals need to know the attendance records of their incoming students and be prepared to engage those students and parents literally at the first absence in order to provide a fresh start. That means working with feeder schools to ensure they are tracking the right data and building good attendance habits beginning in kindergarten or even preschool.

Principals further need to reach out to the community. If they make attendance at their schools an issue of constant and overriding importance, the community will respond. Underscoring these efforts is the acknowledgment that schools can’t do this alone. Principals need to use their attendance data to identify if student attendance is being undermined by a systemic issue that affects a large number of students and requires help from the community to resolve. We know, for example, that asthma and dental problems often contribute to absences, especially among low-income students. So healthcare providers and city agencies can help devise solutions. Transit and police departments can help create safer routes to schools. Volunteers from businesses, faith-based groups, and nonprofits can provide that extra cadre of adults needed to mentor absent students and reach out to parents. The good news is that research and practical experience show that chronic absence can be significantly reduced when schools and communities work together to use data to inform action, build a culture of attendance and help families overcome barriers to getting children to school.

And finally, principals need to “reach up” to their district leadership. While an individual school can and should attempt to address its chronic absenteeism, it becomes infinitely easier and more effective when a superintendent makes it a priority for all schools in the district. It may be the role of the district, for example, to provide attendance clerks who facilitate collection of the data that really matter or to provide other types of professional support people to assist the teaching team and principal. School districts can also make attendance part of their accountability system for evaluating principals or assessing school improvement.

A Case Study

Principal Cliff Hong knew that too many students missed class at his Oakland, CA, middle school, but it was not until he analyzed the data that he saw the picture clearly. Every day, 50 to 60 Roosevelt Middle School students were absent and as many as 15% of students were missing nearly a month of school every year. The absences were costing the school money because California bases its state aid formula on average daily attendance.

Within a year, however, Hong cut his absentee rate in half and saw his school’s standardized test scores climb by 30 scale points. How did he do it? A data-driven focus on attendance, engagement from the full community, and support from school district leadership were the keys to his success. His story is part of a growing national narrative of schools that are improving student achievement by reducing chronic absenteeism.

Hong managed to work with the community, his feeder schools, and the school district as he turned around chronic absence rates at Roosevelt Middle School. “We learned a great deal about our students and their families as we uncovered reasons for absences and developed solutions,” he writes. “The progress also became a reason for celebration and a point of team unity, which motivated staff. And it turned out to be our biggest fundraiser of the year as our increased attendance rate led to higher revenue, since school funding in California is tied to average daily attendance.”

In the following, Hong explains how his school addressed the complex issue.
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Strategies that Work
By Cliff Hong, principal

At Roosevelt Middle School, we reduced our chronic absence rate from 15% in 2010–11 to 8% in 2011–12.  There have been several positive outcomes as a result of this work.  Most importantly, students are learning more because of the increased time in school. Academic achievement, as measured by state standardized tests, rose 30 points last year, the highest API we've had in 14 years, and the most improved of any Oakland Unified School District middle school. 

To achieve this progress, we:

  • Give certificates to students with good attendance and improved attendance and recognize them in assemblies.
  • Organize an “attendance team” with various staff members.  Ours included an attendance clerk, a family liaison, a head of socio-emotional services, a school nurse, a graduate student intern, and the school principal.
  • Set goals.  Our goals were to have an average of 95% attendance overall and no chronic absence and to have similar rates of attendance among our three largest ethnic groups (African-American, Asian Pacific Islander, and Latino).
  • Meet every two weeks to look at the cases of chronically absent students and identify the reasons for the absences.  We began to develop a picture of individuals and groups.  Some had transportation issues; others had illnesses we previously did not know about, etc.
  • Strategically assign one team member to follow up on each student and their family.  For example, our nurse took on students whose absences were primarily health related.  Team members would speak with students and call families.
  • Family conferences.  For students whose attendance rates did not improve, the attendance clerk and principal met face to face with students and a parent/guardian to lay out expectations and sign an improvement plan.
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Robert Balfanz directs the Everybody Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and has conducted seminal research on dropout prevention. Hedy Chang is an expert on early chronic absenteeism and serves as the director of Attendance Works, a national initiative based in San Francisco that addresses policy and practice around attendance. She can be reached at  hnchange@earthlink.net.