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Getting to the Root of Chronic Absence

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By Ross Wiener

School accountability for chronic absence is coming fast and at a massive scale―and without much in the way of pilots or prior experience. How schools, systems, and states approach this measure could determine whether ESSA accountability really is richer and more effective than NCLB, or more of the same.

A new analysis of federal data by Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University shows that nearly 8 million students were chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year. This startling figure comes just as states will be required to include chronic absence data in their school report cards and as 36 states and D.C. go the additional step of using these data to measure school performance.

This could be a watershed moment―driving a focus on making schools healthier, more welcoming places that prioritize students' social, emotional, and academic development. Alternatively, this could become one more example in a long line of accountability measures that leads to blame and punitive responses that address symptoms rather than root causes.  

So what can education leaders do to make sure this focus on chronic absenteeism leads to improvement, not blame?

First, school and system leaders need to figure out the root causes of chronic absenteeism in their context. To do this, they must acknowledge both the in-school and out-of-school factors that can affect student absence. Attendance Works has a helpful graphic that identifies drivers of chronic absence. Some factors encroach from the world outside of school: lack of access to medical care, engagement with the criminal justice system directly or through another family member, and exposure to adverse childhood experiences/trauma. But many factors are within schools' direct ability to control: lack of culturally responsive materials and instruction, no meaningful relationships with adults in school, an unwelcoming school climate, and bullying.

In understanding causes and developing solutions, education leaders should ask students and families directly about their experiences, what leads students to miss school, and what are their ideas for improvement. System leaders should cross-tabulate all the data they have on students to understand the patterns and correlates that predict chronic absence in their schools. If both in- and out-of-school factors are implicated, then solutions should similarly involve both in- and beyond-school strategies.

Ross Wiener.png

Most important, school and system leaders need to go beyond data-shaming and the threat of sanctions to understanding and responding to the needs of students who are disengaging from school. A few suggestions include:

  • Inviting conversations about barriers to attendance that can be ameliorated through partnerships, including provision of wraparound services; out-of-school-time support; and inter-agency collaboration on health, mental health, food security, safety, and other factors that support student success.  
  • Blending ESSA funds strategically across titles to strengthen practice re: students' social and emotional development―focus on chronic absence provides a strong rationale. Congress appropriated an additional $700 million in Title IV funding alone for this year, and ensuring these new funds improve attendance is a great investment in improving student learning.
  • Recognizing that teachers have a big and measurable impact on students' attendance, and valuing the work teachers do to get students engaged. Research by Northwestern's Kirabo Jackson on high school outcomes shows that teachers have great impact on students' behavior, attendance, and engagement in school―possibly even more impact than they have on students' test-score growth. We need to learn more about what teachers do to imbue students with confidence and motivate students to invest in school. Unlocking effort is just as important as imparting specific content knowledge; holding schools accountable for chronic absence is a terrific opportunity to value this aspect of school and student success.
  • Tempering accountability pressure with support, encouragement, and technical assistance. System leaders should publicly identify, celebrate, and study schools that have exemplary attendance―and share the lessons broadly with the field. System leaders should not try to prescribe specific solutions; central office teams are best positioned to analyze data across contexts and look for patterns to be addressed and practices worthy of attention. Teachers and principals are best positioned to develop relationships with students and families and to understand and address community contexts that are affecting attendance.

Ultimately, holding schools accountable for chronic absence will be a very positive thing if it causes greater attention to the human dimensions of learning. Learning is a social process that happens in the context of relationships; students' subjective experience of school affects their motivation and engagement in learning. The new focus on chronic absence can bring much-needed attention and resources to this aspect of improving student outcomes. ESSA will succeed if adults embrace the opportunity to get students more invested, engaged, and chronically present in school. 

Ross Wiener is a vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Education & Society Program

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