Let Evidence Guide the Solutions to Student Absenteeism
Students miss a school day now and then. They get sick, have a doctor’s appointment, or get caught up in a family emergency. These are among common excused absences that don’t usually affect a student’s academic standing.
But chronic absenteeism—missing 10% or more of school—is an equity epidemic with short- and long-term impacts on student performance. Each year, almost eight million students are chronically absent for complex reasons.
Addressing this high level of absenteeism is possible using research-centered strategies, advised a panel of research, attendance, and behavioral science specialists in the recent edLeader Panel, “Taking an Evidence-Based Approach to Reducing Absenteeism,” sponsored by EveryDay Labs.
Data that Drive Solutions
Panelist Phyllis Jordan, editorial director at FutureEd, pointed to the results of the organization’s analysis of states’ 2017 ESSA plans, which require one non-academic indicator for school assessments. Chronic absenteeism emerged as a top indicator that affects students’ educational experiences. Research illuminates its impact:
- Elementary school students who miss 10% of school show weaker social skills development, lower reading ability, and higher grade-retention rates.
- Chronically absent middle schoolers have lower grades and test scores that increase dropout potential.
- Chronic high school absenteeism affects grades, test scores, and graduation and college enrollment rates.
This information provides insight into the reasons (e.g., difficult grade transitions, chronic illness, homelessness) for excessive absences and helps define behavior-change solutions that can improve attendance rates.
Evidence-Based Solutions Examples
Panelist Todd Rogers, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and chief scientist at EveryDay Labs, highlighted three evidence-based interventions that were—tested in randomized controlled trials with mixed results. The outcomes provide insight into what makes for effective strategies.
Conforming to others’ behaviors – This approach, said Rogers, involves illuminating
what others do or how they rank in a specific area. For example, if people learn that their neighbors are spending less on energy, they are likely to reduce their energy use.
Rogers noted that this method is especially effective among families who aren’t fully aware of the extent of their children’s absences; don’t see the connection between absenteeism and academic achievement; and view a few missed school days every month as acceptable.
The behavior conformity model framed EveryDay Labs’ controlled Philadelphia-based trial with 30,000 families. During one school year, random families received, via regular mail, four-five attendance reports—written at a fourth-grade reading level and in a language spoken at home—ranking their children’s attendance rates in comparison to those of their classmates’.
The intervention, explained Rogers, reduced chronic absenteeism by 10-15% across grades. Its replication in Chicago and California public schools had the same results, which, according to Rogers, are attributable to these factors:
- It corrected parental misbeliefs about children’s absences.
- It captured families that might otherwise be disengaged; 85% remembered receiving the report and finding it very helpful. Almost all took action as a result.
- The letter served as a physical “social artifact” that bridged time among missed school days, and thus proved to be more effective than digital communication, like text messaging, often associated with one-off issues as missed homework.
Attendance awards – Rogers said awards seem like a good idea but can backfire with unclear messaging, as they did in 10 school districts where 15,000 students received attendance awards acknowledging a perfect month of attendance. The prize was supposed to further increase attendance further, but rates decreased.
“Students,” Rogers explained, “thought the award meant they attend more school than their classmates. The kids who least wanted to be in school got the award but showed the biggest reduction in attendance. The award basically licensed them to attend school less,” said Rogers, who added that inadvertent messaging, in this case, was counterproductive to the positives of behavior conformity.
Truancy Notices – Truancy letters are already hard enough to swallow and in their formal construct, can be threatening. Rogers explained this was the case in a large California school district that issues truancy notices when a student is late or absent for three days. The official district letter was a rigid, complex, and at a college reading level, making it hard for many parents to grasp.
Rogers’ lab, in partnership with Attendance Works and then attorney general Kamala Harris, revised the letter at a fifth-grade reading level, made it easier to understand, and designed it as an invitation to parents to become problem solvers concerning their children’s absences. The much-improved letter increased its impact by 40%.
FutureEd and Attendance Works, explained Jordan, studied evidence-based interventions that meet ESSA requirements. The result was a compendium of programs, each with a detailed problem, a research case, programs, supporting research, and resources, along with ESSA levels of evidence that rank a solution’s status and three tiers of support systems that have a role in enhanced attendance. Jordan noted that schools, once they have selected an ESSA-required intervention, can use other successful practices of their choice not based in research.
Scott SchmidtBonne, executive director of the Research Division in Omaha Public Schools, cited several elements necessary for designing evidence-based interventions:
- Superintendents must value and view attendance as a district priority that demands funding and sufficient staffing.
- It is critical to discover the causes of chronic absenteeism to define and then scale interventions.
- Innovative programs require financial support.
- Key stakeholders need to understand intervention expectations and impact, which data can demonstrate.
The edWeb edLeader Panel was sponsored by EveryDay Labs.
About the Presenters
Todd Rogers is a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Chief Scientist at EveryDay Labs. He is a behavioral scientist who studies how mobilizing and empowering students’ social networks can increase student success. He founded the Student Social Support R&D Lab at Harvard to use data and behavioral science to develop and prove scalable, high ROI interventions that mobilize and empower students’ social support systems to improve achievement. As Chief Science Adviser, Todd leads EveryDay Labs’ research and innovation, leveraging evidence from EveryDay Labs’ RCTs, research from the Harvard S3 Lab, and academic research to improve the effectiveness of our programs. Todd received his Ph.D. jointly from Harvard’s Department of Psychology and Harvard Business School.
Phyllis W. Jordan is editorial director of FutureEd, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. She is author of several reports about chronic absenteeism, including the Attendance Playbook, which outlines nearly two dozen evidence-based initiatives. Jordan previously served as the communications director at Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based national nonprofit focused on improving the policy, research and practice around school attendance. An experienced writer and editor, Jordan served in senior editing positions at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
Scott SchmidtBonne is the Executive Director of the Research Division in Omaha Public Schools. On Valentines Day Scott will have worked for Omaha Public Schools for 10 years – four years as Senior Program Evaluator and six years as the Director/Executive Director of the Research Division. The Research Division is the internal hub in OPS for all things data, assessment, research, and evaluation. Scott received his undergraduate education in Psychology from Kansas State, and possesses a doctorate level education in Organizational Psychology from the University of Nebraska, and, prior to joining OPS, has worked formally or as a consultant in nearly every industry.
About the Host
Emily Bailard is CEO of EveryDay Labs (formerly InClassToday) which improves student outcomes through the power of behavioral science. The daughter of a first-grade teacher, Emily believes every student deserves the opportunity to be present and learning every day and is thrilled to partner with districts to reduce absenteeism and increase learning time for students. Prior to leading EveryDay Labs, Emily co-led Opower’s Home Energy Report business, which used behavioral science insights to nudge people to save energy. Previously Emily was a consultant at The Bridgespan Group where she advised K12 and early childhood education clients. Emily holds an MBA and Certificate in Public Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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At EveryDay Labs, we improve student outcomes through the power of behavioral science. We partner with districts to reduce absenteeism because we believe every student deserves to learn every day. To date, we have helped prevent more than 400,000 absences, equating to over 150 million minutes of instructional time.