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Understanding Surprising Research Findings on School Attendance

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This post is by Beth Vaade, Madison Education Partnership (@MEP_WCER) Co-Director and Madison Metropolitan School District (@MMSDschools) Innovation Project Manager.

Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: How Much Does Missing School Matter for Young Children?

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Exploring The Problem of Practice Through Research

Student attendance has long been an issue on the forefront of school leaders' and researchers' minds, with both parties being concerned about how missing school affects students' academic achievement. On the upside, increasing attendance would then lead to greater academic gains  or so we thought.

The Madison Education Partnership (MEP), which is now entering its third official year and has created a body of research findings to inform practice in the Madison Metropolitan School District, examined the connection between student attendance and success in school in a report released last spring. As outlined in Monday's blog post, this report produced some unexpected findings: The observed association between attendance and achievement growth was almost entirely accounted for by student background characteristics. This pushed the district to reconsider whether attendance truly should be the focus of efforts by district staff. The idea that raising attendance would not greatly impact achievement gaps seemed counter to what anyone assumed or had been operating under within the district. The concept of attendance as a signal rather than a cause of achievement was perplexing and thought-provoking. In the end, the message was more nuanced than we originally imagined it would be.  

From the research perspective, the report has engaged and excited scholars. Our team members who led this work call it our best research brief to date. When we take the findings out to other scholars, they are curious and want to learn more. We have clear ideas for publication routes and ways to build the work.

Use of Research Findings in Practice

From the practice side, the report was a bit of a clunker. Upon initial release, staff struggled to make sense of the work and understand what the report was telling the district. Once we crossed that bridge, the general impression became that the work was interesting, but not actionable. Our district already had attendance work underway, with a team of people in Central Office dedicated to the work. The district also had recently approved new five-year metrics, which included attendance rates. For research to now say that moving attendance might not help students (which became the short-hand for the results  not entirely accurate, but easier to communicate than the nuanced version) felt contrary to common perception and recent action. And how can schools be held accountable for student background attributes like family income, race/ethnicity, and parental education  the actual drivers of inequalities in student achievement, according to this research? Everyone agreed the finding was thought-provoking, but no one knew what to do with it. As a result, district leaders and Central Office staff didn't act on it immediately.

Future Work

MEP has learned a lot about how to do research-practice partnership work through this attendance report. In our obsession with mutual benefit, we have come to realize that mutualism does not need to be immediately realized; that sometimes one side can get a win while the other side may not see immediate returns. The attendance report bears this out, with our research partners seeing wins (publications! thought-provoking discussions with other scholars!) while the practice side is still making sense of the work and what, if any, action can be taken. We have seen how findings that are complex, interesting, and contrary to popular perceptions can feel exciting to researchers and yet a bit paralyzing to practitioners.

We are now discussing MEP's role in sensemaking beyond just interpretation of findings; we are internally trying to find the balance between simply presenting the findings and advocating for how they could be used. Most of all, we are using what we have learned to jumpstart our new work around attendance in grades 6 through 9, creating new roles in the work such as design teams made up of district central office and school-based staff. By increasing district involvement during the research process, we believe we can walk away with a win-win for both practitioners and researchers, helping us more fully realize the purpose of our partnership.  

 

Photo: Unsplash

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