Chronic Absence: Elephant in the Emptying Classroom

Dealing with no-shows is essential to improving a school’s academic performance.

It's not just the absent kids who miss out. When absentee rates are high in the classroom, performance rates decline for kids that do come to school. (Photo: Getty Images)

What can be done to improve public education in America? Ask a group of school-reform advocates this question, and they’ll probably come up with a list that includes these steps: raising standards, improving curriculum, increasing teacher accountability, opening high-quality charters, and revamping teacher training programs.

It’s unlikely any would suggest tackling the problem of chronic absence.

But recent studies demonstrate that chronically absent students (who miss at least 20 school days per year, whether for excused or unexcused absences), tend to have lower test scores than their peers. Furthermore, in classrooms with high absentee rates, even kids with good attendance records suffer academically. 

Hedy Chang began researching chronic absence in 2006, and is now the director of Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that promotes better policy and practice around school attendance.

In a recent interview with TakePart, Ms. Chang shared her initial surprise at discovering the sheer number of students who missed school on a regular basis.

“I was completely taken aback when I started to see some communities where almost a third of their kindergartners were chronically absent,” she explained. “Unfortunately, this was most likely in districts with high levels of poverty—because poor families were more likely to face systemic barriers to attendance, like lack of health care, inadequate transportation, and homelessness.”

Since poor children were especially dependent on teachers to learn how to read, missing critical school time delayed their reading proficiency, which caused them to fall behind in other subjects, Chang said. “The research conducted by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that chronic absence in kindergarten predicted worse 5th grade achievement for poor children even if their attendance improved in 3rd grade.”

The snowball effect continued, and by 6th grade, chronic absence put students at greater risk of dropping out.

THE INVISIBLE PROBLEM

While improving student attendance rates would be a cost-effective way to increase instructional time and raise student achievement, many schools still fail to address the issue.

TakePart contacted Michael Gottfried, assistant education professor at Loyola Marymount University and an adjunct researcher at RAND Corporation, to find out why improving attendance rates was often overlooked as an important reform strategy. 

He explained the phenomenon as follows: “Academic researchers, policy makers, and school leaders and teachers have always taken it as a given that missing school was bad—that it would have a negative relationship with school success. Because we’ve all just assumed that absences are a ‘bad’ thing, the education community has put them on the backburner—knowing they are there, but not really doing anything about it.”

While improving student attendance rates would be a cost-effective way to increase instructional time and raise student achievement, many schools still fail to address the issue.

Chang added that most schools didn’t even know they had a chronic absence problem, because even though teachers took attendance each day, that data was rarely analyzed. 

“Schools generally focus on average daily attendance figures and track truancy when children miss school due to unexcused absences,” she said. “But both can mask chronic absence. For far too long, taking attendance has been viewed solely as part of complying state compulsory education laws rather than collecting information that, when used well, can be vital to determining how to turn around the academic performance of a student and an entire school.”

Throughout the course of his research, Gottfried was also most surprised by the powerful effect chronic absence had on student learning. Even when he used the most rigorous methodological techniques, the negative impact of missing school still shone through. “No matter what I did, the negative effect of absences was there,” he observed. “It was a persistently detrimental force on student success.”

SAFEGUARDS AND SOLUTIONS

What should schools and communities do to ensure that children regularly attend school? Chang shared the following list of effective strategies for tackling the problem of chronic absence:

  • Provide an engaging curriculum and positive school climate so students are motivated to show up to school every day.
  • Pay attention to building good attendance habits early, ideally starting in pre-K.
  • Use data on chronic absence to identify patterns, set a target for reduction, and monitor progress over time.
  • Take comprehensive approaches involving students, families, and community agencies.
  • Examine factors contributing to chronic absence, especially from parent and student perspectives.
  • Ensure students, especially in middle and high school, aren’t being pushed out of school due to inappropriate and unnecessarily harsh discipline practices.
  • Combine strategies to improve attendance among all children, with special interventions targeting those who are chronically absent.
  • Offer positive supports to promote school attendance before resorting to punitive responses or legal action.

Chang concluded that as long as the problem of chronic absence continued unaddressed, the impact of other reform efforts would be minimized, and the achievement gap would persist. 

“The key to ensuring we have a strong healthy democracy and economy is making sure all children have a chance to get an education so they can get and keep a job,” she reflected. “Our society is built on the dream that if we as parents work hard, our children have a shot at a better life. In my view, chronic absence is a sign that we are more at risk than ever before of losing this American Dream.”

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