Students who miss just two days of school a month in first and second grades can end up with lower test scores in third grade, researchers have found.
“We make a lot of investments in teaching, but that’s not going to matter if we don’t have the kids in school,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a California-based nonprofit that helps schools develop attendance strategies.
Figuring out what makes kids miss school and intervening early has become a high priority for schools around the country. Educators are shifting away from “truancy,” a term that conjures images of kids skipping school.
The new approach instead targets attendance problems with younger students, looking at the early grade school years rather than middle school and high school. It also focuses on helping with family and social challenges, rather than handling the problem in the courts.
“Missing even a few days a month can add up to a month of missed school over a school year and significantly undermine performance,” said Michael Gottfried, an education economist at U.C. Santa Barbara, who has become the preeminent researcher on school absenteeism.
Gottfried’s newest journal article, which comes out early next year, looks at the impact of chronic absenteeism in kindergarten, which has a big effect on later school success.
Gottfried focuses on chronic absenteeism rather than truancy or unexcused absences. “It doesn’t matter why the child is absent,” he said. “The effect on learning is the same.” This appears to be true, he said, even controlling for all other likely variables.
What is chronic absenteeism? Some mark it at two weeks, Gottfried said, while others use 18 days of missed school as the cutoff. Gottfried splits the difference. He uses “moderate chronic” for those missing two weeks and “strong chronic” for missing 18 days or more.
Gottfried found that strong chronic absence in kindergarten reduced math and reading test scores, and the negative impacts are heightened for low-income students, whose parents may lack the skills to compensate for missed instruction. Gottfried also found that more absences translate to lower scores even within the same family.
According to a detailed 2011 study commissioned by Attendance Works, poor attendance during those first two years can erase the advantages of good pre-kindergarten preparation.
Among those who entered kindergarten with strong academic skills, the study found, 77 percent of those with good attendance performed at grade level in third-grade testing, but only 13 percent of those who were chronically absent performed at grade level.
One school district that has embraced this new approach is the Recovery School District in Louisiana, which administers most of the public schools in New Orleans, all of which are now charters and which this year launched a new attendance program called the Youth Opportunity Center.
“Prior to this year, schools struggling with truancy lacked capacity for what is essentially a social work,” said Laura Hawkins, RSD’s deputy chief of staff. “Schools lacked the ability to provide strong assistance to families facing complex issues.”
The Youth Opportunity Center occupies a suite of offices at the district headquarters, replacing the old truancy program, which only served families referred to municipal court for hard-core truancy issues and which was awkwardly located adjacent to the city jail.
The problem, she said, is that under the old model the district handled truancy as legal matters, when the underlying causes were social welfare issues. “The kids may be absent because they are struggling with transportation, or struggling to care with a younger child,” Hawkins said. “Often it’s not that parents don’t want to get their kid to school, they just don’t know what to do.”
The new Youth Opportunity Center, funded by the state, provides “really intensive case management” for these families, Hawkins said. The case manager talks to the family, figures out the problem and finds resources to help address the problem.
Sometimes the answer is as simple as transferring the child to a school closer to home. New Orleans has a citywide choice program, with almost all kids in charter schools. This can be a benefit, but it can also be a burden in getting kids to school when a student is placed in a school across town.
Until this year, the Truancy Center was housed in a building next to the sheriff’s office, Hawkins said, which was not helpful in the subtle signals it was sending to kids. To help create a more hopeful mood, they moved the new Youth Opportunity Center to a suite of offices in the same building as the Recovery School District.
The Youth Opportunity Center is starting small this year, with just 10 schools, six of which are elementary schools. Within four years, the plan is to be serving all schools in the city, Hawkins said.
The social services attendance model now underway in New Orleans is the type of program Attendance Works helps schools use around the country.
Chronic absence can sneak up on you, Chang says. A child with fairly common asthma, for example, could easily miss two days of school a month — which is the 18 days a year mark that Gottfried calls “strong chronic absence,” the point where strong academic harm kicks in.
“If kids are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade,” Chang said, “the chances that they will be reading by the end of 3rd grade are very slim. Going to school doesn’t guarantee that you will read, but not going to school pretty much guarantees you won’t, especially for low-income kids who depend on schools for that literacy rich environment.”
Kids who miss a lot of school in the early years and get a step or two behind on core skills then struggle in the classroom. By sixth grade, Chang says, they may have decided that school is not for them.
The success models are fairly well understood, Chang said. They creating a culture of attendance, engaging families and closely following data to find problems that need bigger solutions.
The first step, Chang says, is to monitor data. “You need to know which kids are having problems with chronic absence and which schools and neighborhoods are most affected.”
Chang notes that traditional measures like average daily attendance have masked the problem. A school with 95 percent average daily attendance could still have very serious pockets of chronic absence.
The next imperative is what Chang calls a “tiered approach,” which simply means early interventions that stop short of judicial action. Historically, the courts have been the first line of defense on truancy. They should be the last, she argues.
“You have to start by building a culture of attendance. You need kids to know why it matters, recognize kids for improved attendance, and build a culture where everyone expects to be there every day.”
The third step is “early personalized outreach, to find out why kids are missing schools and engage them.”
In one case, Chang says, her group worked with a district in New Britain, Connecticut. They helped assess the district's needs, beginning with identifying low-income schools that had low levels of chronic absence.
Attendance Works helped the schools create their own site plans that brought a new culture into the schools, and by the end of the first year, the district had dropped its chronic absence in K-8 from 20 to 13 percent, Chang said.
Chang also points to an experiment in New York City with “success monitors,” which has reached over 10,000 at-risk kids with adults tasked to greet them at school, call home if they are missing, and arrange extra support if challenges persist.
A schoolwide attendance team would then consider serious cases and seek solutions while also looking for systemic issues that might become evident after analyzing the data.
That program in New York improved attendance by an average of nine days, Chang said. To put that in perspective, she notes, the cutoff line for chronic absence is 18 days, so nine days reflects an enormous impact.
Those kids ended up more likely to be in school three years later and not drop out and more likely to earn Cs and not Ds, compared to a control group.
"It was enough to make a difference," Chang said.