Principals have just as much impact on student attendance as they do student achievement — especially in urban and high-poverty schools where unexcused absence rates can be almost twice as large as those in suburban and rural schools, a new study finds.
Replacing a principal whose prior schools have had poor attendance with one whose past schools had high attendance rates decreases absenteeism among all students by an average of 0.8 percentage points — or 1.4 days less during a 180-day school year, finds Brendan Bartanen, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.
Bartanen, whose work has focused on the effects of principal turnover, examined data on 3,100 Tennessee principals from 2006-07 through 2016-17. He finds that the principal effect also lowered the chances that a student would be chronically absent by 4 percentage points.
“From the perspective of policymakers and district leaders, my results suggest that intervening with principals could be an effective means to address high rates of chronic absenteeism,” Bartanen wrote in Educational Researcher.
With states now responsible for tracking chronic absenteeism under the Every Student Succeeds Act and most states using that measure as an indicator of school quality, the results are particularly timely and have implications for how principals are trained, placed, supervised and evaluated. They also come as states and districts are revamping principal preparation programs to emphasize instruction.
Bartanen’s analysis shows the results were strongest in high-poverty schools, reducing the chances of students being chronically absent by 6 percentage points and underscoring, he says, “the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality principals in disadvantaged schools.”
He notes, for example, previous research showing high-poverty and low-achieving schools in Tennessee were more likely than low-poverty and high-achieving schools to have inexperienced and “low-rated" principals.
The results also show only minor differences depending on whether the principal worked at an elementary, middle or high school, which suggests effective principals “tailor their efforts to address the factors that inhibit attendance for their specific student population,” Bartanen wrote.
A different view of principal quality
The study, however, shows the principals who were effective at raising attendance rates were not always the ones who improved achievement. Therefore, Bartanen wrote, focusing only on student achievement to determine whether a principal is succeeding will ignore any positive impact they might have on “noncognitive or character skills, such as attendance.”
Noting past research, Bartanen reviews the variety of ways principals can contribute to improved attendance rates, the first of which is hiring and retaining teachers “who excel at decreasing student absenteeism.” But they also can communicate the importance of attendance to families, implement programs focused on improving attendance, and work with community partners to identify the issues causing students to miss school. Some schools have installed laundry facilities to meet the needs of students who miss school because they don’t have clean clothes.
Attendance Works, an advocacy organization, produces research and resources on attendance issues and also provides “toolkits,” case studies and other materials for school leaders.
“We see principals as the key, essential linchpin to addressing chronic absence,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. “Principals are essential to making it a priority and sending the message that improving attendance takes a tiered approach that involves the entire school."
In his study, Bartanen also highlights the Connecticut Department of Education’s guide for schools and districts, which includes root causes of chronic absenteeism and examples of interventions.
The Tennessee Leaders for Equity Playbook, created in 2018 by the Tennessee Department of Education, is another resource that identifies the specific roles of principals in reducing chronic absenteeism, noted Ann Clark, former superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools in North Carolina.
Now a consultant working with organizations such as the Bush Institute on school leadership issues, Clark said because districts are making goals for attendance a part of their long-range plans, “school principals are including a focus on student absenteeism in their school improvement plans.”
David Brown — the focus of a yearlong series on a first year principal in the Prince George's County Public Schools — identified attendance as one of the first challenges he wanted to address when he became principal at Hillcrest Heights Elementary School in Temple Hills, Maryland, last fall.
In Maryland's accountability system, "one of those variables that weighs pretty heavily is actually student attendance," said Rodney Henderson, who leads PGCPS' principal induction program. He added that building a positive school culture so students will want to be in school is emphasized throughout new principals' preparation. "You can't turn student achievement around if [students] are not there."
He also greets students and families when they arrive in the morning, and he's there to send them off in the afternoon. When the school held an attendance party in the fall to reward students for not missing any days or being late, 40 students were able to attend. A second party was held in November, and 240 were able to participate.
Bartanen notes, however, his study doesn’t identify specifically how principals improve attendance. Future research, he wrote, should examine how they use attendance data to identify which students are more likely to be absent and how they engage with parents.
“Better understanding these mechanisms,” he wrote, “could provide useful guidance about specific ways to target development opportunities for school leaders to help them lower absenteeism rates.”