Educators often say frequent absences are a symptom of another issue in a student’s life. Those issues involve students’ health and safety, a sense of belonging, academic engagement, and students’ and adults’ social and emotional skills, according to a new report from Attendance Works and the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
These “conditions for learning” — whether positive or negative — are intertwined with students’ attendance patterns, and they especially matter for children in poverty, students of color and those with disabilities, the authors said.
“Unfortunately for students who face challenges in the community, inequities often intensify when students encounter negative conditions in school, which may undermine their motivation to attend class and learn,” they write.
Accompanying the report is a nationwide, interactive map that displays data points related to these conditions for every school and ZIP code in the nation.
The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution created the resource with multiple data sources, including the American Community Survey, Civil Rights Data Collection and state school report cards. Teacher attendance rates, suspension and expulsion rates, teacher-student ratios and poverty rates are among the indicators available along with chronic absenteeism rates.
The map can be used to get a “preliminary sense of the relative level of chronic absence for schools compared to nearby schools and then to quickly take a look at how those levels compare to the community demographics of the surrounding community,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works. "I should say, however, that before the district jumps to any conclusions about what is happening, it should make sure to find the most recent data it can to see if the chronic absence situation has stayed the same.”
She noted that the map will also be useful to “outside stakeholders,” and David Osher, vice president and an institute fellow at AIR, added that gathering data on “community assets” can also help schools and districts find solutions to high absenteeism rates.
Not just 'an accountability challenge'
The report also includes examples of how a state and a district are working to increase attendance and monitor chronic absenteeism data — which all states are now required to collect under the Every Student Succeeds Act. A majority of states are also using chronic absenteeism as a non-academic indicator in their school accountability systems.
In Georgia, for example, multiple initiatives have come together that address absenteeism in the early grades. First, creating positive school climates is one goal of the Get Georgia Reading campaign, which focuses on making sure students are reading on grade level by 3rd grade.
Next, after leaders of the campaign and the state’s early learning agency saw the results of a new school climate rating system, they created training program to help K-3 teachers support social-emotional learning.
And last year, a state law passed that keeps students in pre-K to 3rd grade from being suspended for more than five days without educators first assessing whether they have any disabilities and using multiple strategies to address their behavior issues.
In the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio, community partners including the Cleveland Browns Foundation use multiple strategies to encourage attendance, such as a phone bank, providing students with uniforms and clothing, and providing incentives for good attendance. The district has also added staff members focusing specifically on attendance.
Chang recommended large schools in particular have staff members focusing specifically on attendance, but not “in isolation of the other reform efforts going on at a school.”
Osher added that “if attendance numbers are seen just as an accountability challenge, people may blame students and families” and that family engagement is an important element in increasing attendance.
The report includes a “school action framework” that focuses on the school level “because assets, opportunities and conditions can vary widely across schools,” the authors write.