Chronic Absenteeism: New Study Reveals Surprising Facts

Is an early warning system the answer to curbing chronic absenteeism?
Study reveals surprising facts about chronic absenteeism and dropout rates. (Photo: Richard Ross)
May 31, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

If you’re not in school, you can’t learn. But understanding which students are chronically absent is not that simple to measure if you are just looking at school’s attendance rates. A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University points out that most schools tally attendance in a way that does not help prevent future dropouts or classroom failure.

“We measure average daily attendance, how many kids total are in the building,” says Robert Balfanz, one of the study’s authors. “But that’s not very useful information because it doesn’t show how many kids are missing a lot of school.”

According to the study, which came out in May, up to 15 percent of students (or up to 7.5 million students nationally) miss a month of a school a year. Chronic absenteeism—a student missing 10 percent of a school year for any reason—does not stand out because, as the study says, “A school can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90 percent.”

The facts that emerge in this study are depressing: students who are chronically absent in one year are likely to miss half a school year over four or five years; children in poverty are more likely to be chronically absent than those in higher socio-economic environments; kindergarten absentee rates are often as high as those in high school in some school districts.

Only a handful of states and districts actually measure chronic absenteeism, says Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins. The ones that do measure it rarely use this data in a way that will flag troublesome patterns, although Balfanz says there is hope. He is finding (and often assisting) districts that are starting to target chronic absenteeism. For instance, in 2010, Mayor Bloomberg in New York City launched an “Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement.” Since that program’s launch, the city’s chronically absent students gained over 7,000 days in attendance.

It is important to identify students who chronically miss school early, Balfanz says, because studies have shown absences will greatly affect achievement down the road—and potentially lead to a significantly higher chance of dropping out if the problem isn’t solved. “A child’s third-grade reading ability is impacted by attendance in kindergarten,” says Balfanz, adding that children in high-poverty neighborhoods are much more likely to slip through the cracks when they are chronically absent. “We have to have systems to [make sure] kids are regularly coming to school and succeeding. This makes common sense, but it’s typically not done that way. We just try to adjust for the next year, as opposed to following these kids forward.”

Balfanz suggests schools implement an early warning system that will ramp up efforts over a short period of time: Notice every absence (not just a phone call on the tenth missing day, for instance),  reward good behavior, intervene with the child and the child’s family and try to solve the problem. Obviously, this takes work and manpower, something schools don’t often have. Groups like the nonprofit Get Schooled Foundation (which commissioned the Johns Hopkins study) and Diplomas Now are available to help schools come up with solutions. For instance, one recent Get Schooled campaign allows students across the country to sign up for a prerecorded celebrity wake-up call.

A wake-up call, while great for students who may not have parents around much to help, is not enough to stamp out chronic absenteeism. “[Missing] students need someone to call, someone to ask, ‘What’s going on,” Balfanz says. Schools can team up with adults, such as a social worker, who might be willing to make phone calls or pay the student’s family a visit.

In April, Balfanz wrote admiringly of efforts made on this front by Browne Education Campus in Northeast Washington:

Perhaps most impressive is Browne’s 83 percent reduction in students who were identified at the start of that school year as chronically absent – missing 20 or more days. This is critical because if students are not in school, they cannot learn. Browne’s secret weapon is combining whole-school improvements, with more caring adults who are guided by data to reach out to students before they disengage and to bring back those who already have.

Browne is one of about two dozen schools nationwide partnering with Diplomas Now, and these schools receive extra staff and support from three national nonprofits: Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development Secondary, a school reform model that improves curriculum and instruction; City Year’s young adult “near peers” who welcome students to school, call them if they don’t show up, and offer tutoring and service opportunities; and Communities In Schools’ case managers who help the neediest students and their families access community resources and visit the homes of students who miss five days or more of school.

Through a combination of school responsibility and social intervention, hopefully more and more students will find their way to school on a regular basis. “Going to school is highly tied to achievement,” Balfanz says. “If you miss a year of school between sixth and tenth grades, you’re just not going to do well.”

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.

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