A simple way to confront chronic school absences

Attendance in schools is a key indicator of outcomes, especially in early grades.
Attendance in schools is a key indicator of outcomes, especially in early grades.

The idea was amazingly simple. Ask a group of teachers to visit the homes of their first- and second-grade students at the beginning of the school year. Give each teacher a smart phone with a paid plan to encourage regular communication with families. Then ask that teacher to focus attention on each child’s attendance in – or absence from – school.

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.

The research project that one of us led with colleagues at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy underscores two basic truths about school attendance. First, absenteeism starts early. Nearly one in eight North Carolina elementary school students misses 15 or more days of school, and those missed days can leave children struggling to read on grade level, according to a recent study by the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation.

And second, prevention of chronic absence is not rocket science. There are positive measures that school districts can implement at little cost that will improve children’s attendance, support families, and strengthen engagement in school.

Research tells us that attendance matters for a key indicator of student outcomes—third-grade reading proficiency. Students who miss too much school in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read on grade level by the end of third grade, more likely to be held back, and less likely to graduate from high school.

Chronic absence in the early years can be a warning that something is going on in a child’s life that needs to be addressed, often giving schools a heads-up sooner than academic measures would.

Now, as the state Board of Education considers whether to hold schools accountable for attendance, North Carolina has an opportunity to pay better attention to chronic absence. The state could join 36 other states and Washington, D.C., who already are monitoring absenteeism among other accountability metrics they developed under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

In the meantime, the state could take steps to set the stage for an improved approach to chronic absence.

First, the state needs to adopt a standard definition of chronic absenteeism. Most states consider a student chronically absent when he or she misses 10 percent of the school year – or about 18 days – for any reason.

Second, schools and communities need something more than the punitive approaches prescribed in state law. An emphasis on teenage truancy ignores the problem where it starts – in the early grades, when absences are about families struggling with transportation, health issues, unstable housing, or other obstacles to attendance.

Chronic absence is a problem that can be solved, and school districts and communities across the country are working together on practical strategies to improve attendance by engaging students and families—strategies such as the home visit and cell phone experiment.

Greater awareness of absenteeism and its consequences could result in schools and communities working harder to improve attendance. That could, in turn, put more of North Carolina’s children on a pathway to educational success.

Jordan is editorial director at FutureEd at Georgetown University. Cook is a professor emeritus at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.