Attendance: The New Equity Frontier

 //  Sep 13, 2016

Attendance: The New Equity Frontier

What’s the single most important word a student can say every day to boost achievement? 


The act of showing up to school is one of the greatest predictors of student success, from early literacy through graduation, with impact lasting into adulthood. Kids miss school for lots of reasons: sickness, truancy, suspension, and out-of-school barriers. Whether excused or unexcused, absent students miss instruction in equal measure. But new research has exposed just how unevenly this issue strikes our nation’s students.

The federal government has recently been shining a bright light on data that tracks students who are chronically absent, commonly defined as missing 10% or more of school days. In June, 2016, the U.S. DOE’s Office of Civil Rights released an unprecedented report on chronic absence, declaring a national crisis: one in eight students across the nation miss 15 or more days of school a year. That’s over 6.5 million students who missed more than three weeks of school during a single school year.

That groundbreaking report prompted Hedy Chang (Executive Director of Attendance Works) and Robert Balfanz (Director of Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University) to probe further. Balfanz explains, "The question we really asked ourselves is: we know there's 6.5 million chronically absent kids in the nation, but where do we find those kids? Because in order to change chronic absenteeism, we have to go where the students are chronically absent, and just a national number doesn't tell us that."

On September 8th, Chang and Balfanz released the results of their analysis in “Preventing Missed Opportunity.”

Their research yielded several dramatic findings:

  • Chronic absence strikes everywhere, occurring in 90% of our nation’s districts.

  • Although it’s widespread, the majority of cases are highly concentrated. Over half of all chronic absenteeism takes place in just four percent of our nation’s districts, and 12% of our schools. 

  • Chronic absenteeism strikes rural areas hard as well as urban. In fact, most of the districts reporting over 30% of students with chronic absenteeism are found in rural areas. 

  • Minorities, students living in poverty, and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected.

Despite those alarming statistics, there is some promising news. Chronic absence can be dramatically reduced when districts, families, and community partners collaborate using proven strategies.

Hedy Chang is one of the nation’s leading champions for increasing attendance as a lever for closing the achievement gap. We spoke to Chang to get her perspective on how families, teachers, and districts can be part of that solution. 

Districts and schools across the country have gotten the message: attendance matters. What are some key steps a district can take to prevent chronic absenteeism?

One huge step all districts and schools should take is to use their attendance data to figure out how much chronic absence is a problem. We offer a free set of tools that can help take a closer look by school, grade, and student sub-groups. Once you analyze the data, you can target your resources where they are needed most. You can look for bright spots with low absence rates, and celebrate those successes.

We’ve also found that sharing the data with school staff, health providers, civic organizations—to name a few—helps everyone to unpack and understand the barriers to attendance and work together to develop solutions.

Are there effective strategies and tools you recommend for families to use?

Yes, in many ways, families are the frontline for tackling this issue. When we emphasize the fact that missing just two days a month impacts a child’s success, that helps frame the issue in a way that’s easy to digest. We recognize that families need a support network, and need to know some ready resources for those times they need help getting their kids to school.

We’ve also found that encouraging family routines makes a big difference. For example, having a set bedtime and reading a book at night can ease the transition to school the next morning.

You mention reading a book at bedtime. We know that higher attendance is linked to higher literacy rates. But can building family literacy also be a strategy for boosting attendance?

Literacy and attendance go hand-in-hand. First of all, children with better attendance have higher reading scores—that’s a known fact. But there is a deeper cycle to look at. When students gain literacy skills and feel more successful, then they are more likely to want to go school.

In addition, we’ve seen that participation in family literacy programs is associated with higher attendance. We think this could reflect the additional boost that comes when parents have a connection to their children’s learning and have a better sense for why showing up to school, as early as preschool and kindergarten, matters so much for their learning and succeeding.

Chronic absenteeism strikes hard in areas of urban poverty, but your research also revealed a high impact in some rural areas as well.  Does the nature of absenteeism vary in different areas? 

Absolutely. The issue of poverty is one constant that contributes to families lacking the resources to address basic needs (such as housing, transportation, food, clean clothes, and health care) that are necessary for daily attendance.

But the way this plays out varies by community. For example, transportation is often a great challenge in rural communities, as well as the sense of isolation that may accompany that geographic factor. Additionally, children with health issues who live even farther away from school often miss school because gaining access to medical treatment requires driving long distance.

With the latest research, chronic absence is now recognized as a barrier to an equal opportunity to learn.  Has this national spotlight on attendance as an equity issue prompted any action at the federal level?

Yes, there’s been incredible movement on the federal level! The White House and U.S. Department of Education teamed up in February 2016 to launch the My Brother’s Keeper’s Success Mentors initiative, and an Ad Council Campaign, both aimed at ensuring students are in school every day so they can learn.   

Do these initiatives have teeth? Will they move the needle?

We really believe so, and we’re already seeing changes. Chronic absence is now a required reporting element in ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act. State Education Agencies must release an annual state report card describing how the state is meeting Title I requirements. In addition to measures such as per-pupil expenditures and student achievement, the report cards must include rates of chronic absenteeism, along with incidences of violence, including bullying and harassment. Local Education Agencies are also required to issue report cards to the public that include chronic absenteeism. In addition, under ESSA, states have the option of defining whether or not to use chronic absence as a measure of school quality and student success.  With all of these measures, along with increased funding, we think we will see chronic absenteeism decline dramatically. More importantly, we are hopeful that we’ll see equal access to learning lead to increased academic and lifelong success.


In recognition of Attendance Awareness Month (September), this is the first post of a two-part series exploring the impact of chronic absenteeism and looking at solutions.