The Crisis of Chronic Absenteeism
This week, in recognition of National Attendance Month, we are pleased to share an interview with Leslie Cornfeld, who in 2010 was appointed Chair and founding Director of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism & School Engagement.
Cornfeld now serves as Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education, and Director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships.
I spoke with Cornfeld about absenteeism as an equity issue, its impact on student achievement, how she’s worked to address it both at the state and federal level, and what she’s learned about how absenteeism is perceived by parents and educators nationwide.
When we talk about “chronic absenteeism,” what exactly do we mean—and why does it matter?
Chronic absenteeism—missing at least 18 days of school in a year, excused or unexcused—is a devastating problem in our nation. It is a leading cause of high drop-out rates, poor college and career readiness, and criminal justice involvement.
You’ve called it a "crisis"—how bad is the problem?
Our [US Department of Education] Office of Civil Rights recently released the first national accounting of chronic absenteeism in our country. The numbers are alarming: over 6 million students missed 3 weeks or more of school. That’s over 90 million lost days of school.
It starts early. Roughly 10% of students in elementary school missed 3 weeks or more a year; 12% in middle school, and 20% in high school. Tragically those numbers are higher in low-income communities, where school offers the best hope for a better future.
The impact is devastating—on students, schools and communities. Frequent absences lead to poor academic achievement and dropping out. Absences in the early years reduce the likelihood that students will read proficiently by third grade—making those students four times more likely to drop out of high school. From eighth to 12th grade, absenteeism is a better predictor of who will drop out than test scores.
In New York City, when we looked at the data, we learned that in 79% of juvenile arrests, the student was chronically absent preceding the arrest. Those who drop out are substantially more likely to be incarcerated and live in poverty. It’s a problem that we as a nation can not afford to disregard.
Why are kids missing so much school?
There are several myths about the causes of chronic absenteeism, including that these kids are lazy, unmotivated or simply don’t care.
The research suggests something very different. Chronic absences are typically fueled by circumstances beyond these students’ control, including the challenges of poverty, poor health, frequent moves, caring for relatives, working to help support families or multiple jobs, bullying, gangs, transportation problems, and dangerous routes to school. And some students don’t go simply because no one seems to care whether they show up. The good news is that this is a problem we can do something about.
How do schools and districts use data to address absenteeism?
Data is a critical component of any effort to address this crisis. If used properly, chronic absenteeism is a powerful early warning indicator that a student is at risk of poor academic performance and dropping out. It allows states, districts and schools to intervene early, before it becomes easier to drop out than to catch up.
Kids don’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to drop out.” It is a slow fade. Chronic absenteeism provides an early warning flag, and opportunity to turn that around.
How is chronic absenteeism an equity issue?
It’s absolutely an equity issue. Absenteeism rates are disproportionately higher among Black and Latino students —20% miss 3 or more weeks of school. That’s 1 in 5 students. Rates are also higher in our lowest income communities, and among our most vulnerable populations. It is important to note, however, that this is a problem nationwide, as most school districts have pockets of students who are chronically absent.
You mentioned the Federal initiative that has been launched to address chronic absenteeism nationwide. What does that look like, and what strategies are you bringing from the New York City model?
One year ago, President Obama launched Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism as part of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative (MBK). This is a multi-agency, “all hands-on-deck” effort to address absenteeism using a comprehensive strategy driven by the White House, and Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice.
The campaign has provided tools, supports, free resources, best practice strategies, and a public awareness campaign to encourage states and local communities across the country to reduce absenteeism by at least 10% each year.
Why a public awareness campaign—don’t most people know attendance matters?
Great question. There’s a huge awareness gap. A recent Ad Council study showed that while most parents recognize that attendance is important, roughly 50% thought it was fine to miss three or more days a month. That’s over a month of school. Full disclosure: as a parent, I was surprised at how quickly absences add up. To address this, we launched a National Ad Council awareness campaign called Absences Add Up, which provides outdoor and digital public service announcements, and free resources and supports. Help us spread the word, take a look at AbsencesAddUp.org. We had a similar campaign in New York City, which proved useful.
Tell me more about the New York City model.
During the Administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, we became aware of the scale and impact of chronic absenteeism. Over 250,000 students missed a month or more of school during the year in NYC. The Mayor created an interagency taskforce to address this challenge, for which I served as chair and director. As with the federal model, we engaged the heads of all relevant agencies: education, child welfare, health, justice, housing —and developed cross-sector strategies to address this challenge.
We piloted various strategies over a three-year period, starting in 25 high-need schools, which we increased to 100 schools in the third year, and which included new data sharing tools, an awareness campaign, and celebrity WakeUp calls.
An evaluation found that the most successful element of the effort was the NYC Success Mentor Corps, which combines big data with the human touch. It is a low-cost, scalable model that relies on existing school-linked resources, and connects them to chronically absent students.
Mentors could be anyone in the school community, from athletic coaches, teachers, security guards to college students or AmeriCorps members—people who are already connected to the school. They serve as motivators, connectors and cheerleaders, and help identify the cause of the absences, help connect the student to resources and supports, and celebrate strengths and successes.
Johns Hopkins evaluated the model, and found that it significantly reduced absenteeism, and that the greatest positive impact was on kids who were homeless or living in poverty, and also that there was significant positive impact on dropout prevention. Those students with mentors were 53% more likely to remain in school the following year.
So how does the Success Mentor model work?
In this model, the student and the mentor meet three days a week—sometimes one-on-one, and sometimes in a small group setting—and they continue to meet regularly throughout the year.
Because it’s really important to start early in the year, schools begin by identifying kids who were chronically absent the prior year. That way, they are starting strong with a matched mentor who then stays with the student through the full academic year.
The beauty of the model is that when the mentor is someone connected with the school community, they are around the students regularly, even apart from scheduled meetings.
The Department and our collaborators provide Virtual Training Summits, on site visits and/or check-in calls, office hours, White House training and network summits and other resources.
We’re now rolling out this model nationally, aiming to target a million students in 30 cities over the next 3-5 years. The goal is for every chronically absent student to have a mentor, and that each mentor will have access to infrastructure that helps them address what’s going on.
The Washington Post called New York City’s campaign a “model of what’s possible.” Were you surprised by anything you learned?
There were three surprises. First, the lack of awareness about this problem, including among teachers, school leaders, school partners and students and parents. That’s why in New York City, and for the Federal effort, we worked with the Ad Council to get out the word about the devastating impact of the problem, and how to access free resources and support.
Second, we were surprised to discover how few schools and districts measured this problem. Without that information, it’s impossible to know the extent of the issue, and to address it.
Third, we were surprised by the immense power of combining data with the human touch through the Success Mentor model.
I will always remember one student’s response when asked how he managed to go from missing over 35 days of school the prior year to almost none. His response: "no one ever asked me to come every day."
His Success Mentor had done just that, plus let him know that his presence mattered. (To learn more about this model visit NationalSuccessMentors.org.)
Any final words for our readers?
Yes, this challenge should rise to a priority level for everyone who is interested in improving the educational and life outcomes for students in our high need communities, and elsewhere. It doesn’t matter what great things are happening in our schools if the very students who can benefit the most aren’t there.
In recognition of Attendance Awareness Month (September), this is the second of a two-part series exploring the impact of chronic absenteeism and looking at solutions. To read part one, an interview with Hedy Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, click here.