The Strong Connection Between Effective Principals and Student Attendance
We know that effective principals can have a positive impact on student test scores—even though they do so indirectly.
But does that impact extend to student attendance?
A paper published this month by Brendan Bartanen, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Texas A&M University, found that effective principals can play a huge role in reducing student absenteeism. Their impacts are even more profound in urban and high-poverty schools, where student absenteeism rates are generally higher and where district leaders often find it more difficult to hire and retain highly effective principals.
According to Attendance Works, a national organization that focuses on reducing student absenteeism, more than 7 million students were chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year. (In most states, that means that the student missed at least 10 percent of the instructional days in a school year.)
Bartanen drew on statewide data for about 3,800 Tennessee principals from the 2006-07 and the 2016-17 school years and used value-added models to estimate principals' effects. He found that changing a principal who was at the 25th percentile in principal quality to one at the 75th percentile lowered student absenteeism on average by 0.8 percentage points—or the equivalent of 1.4 teaching days.
Those impacts were greater in high-poverty schools and urban schools.
"The finding that it's largest in urban and high-poverty schools matters a lot because those are the places where the baseline absenteeism rates are higher," Bartanen said. "It just reinforces that policies that can both recruit and keep high quality principals in these kinds of environments can be really important if you want to drive improvements in test scores and improvements in student attendance."
Another key finding? The principals who made significant gains in driving down student absenteeism were not necessarily the principals who were driving large test score gains.
The takeaway from that insight, Bartanen said, is that effective leadership is multidimensional. When district leaders are thinking about highly effective principals, they shouldn't reduce that definition solely to a principal's ability to increase test scores, he said.
"We know, or we increasingly recognize, that attendance—in addition to other non-cognitive or non-test-score outcomes or character skills—are important outcomes," he said. "A sole focus on trying to find leaders who are going to drive test score gains, this paper suggests, might be a bit short-sighted because those may not be the principals who are going to give you the best improvements in other outcomes that we care about as well."
How Can Principals Boost Attendance?
The paper did not identify what exactly the principals in the study were doing to cut down on student absenteeism.
But principals have a lot of ways they can directly and indirectly tackle student absenteeism.
Attendance Works says that principals can play a key role in improving student attendance by creating a schoolwide culture that values attendance. Some of the tactics to do so include targeted outreach to families before the school year starts, using attendance data to devise early interventions and supports for students and families who need assistance, creating a school team to tackle attendance, and lobbying for more money or other resources to address the issue.
Principals can affect attendance indirectly through the hiring process and by creating a school climate that's conducive to learning in the same way they affect test scores. They can hire teachers who are engaging, good at instruction, and who establish welcoming and safe classroom environments that make students want to come to school.
"Human capital management is still pretty key," Bartanen said.
Principals can also use their leadership roles to create partnerships and afterschool programs that may motivate students to want to come to school, like flag football, dance, or boxing programs.
"Having those things for a student to do either during the school day or after school can provide an incentive for a student to want to come to school," Bartanen said. "If you are able to provide them with opportunities that they enjoy, then I think it will be more likely that they'll come to school."
What Could This Mean for Hiring and Accountability?
The value-added model Bartanen used produced estimates for principals in the same school, so he cautions against making comparisons between individual principals in Nashville, for example, and principals in another county in the state, where school and neighborhood conditions and other contexts differ. However, he thinks the results can be generalized beyond Tennessee.
States are already paying attention to student attendance as an accountability measure. At least 36 states, including the District of Columbia, have included chronic absenteeism in their accountability measures under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
Bartanen cautions, though, against attaching high stakes to those measures, the same way that high stakes were attached to testing. But he thinks it's a worthy goal for schools and districts to think about how to help principals address student absenteeism.
"I think you're always going to have the tension of Campbell's Law—once you attach stakes to something it becomes less and less useful as a measure of the thing that you care about," he said.
As for hiring principals, he said, the lesson for districts is to look beyond test scores when making decisions.
"I think what this study does is it builds a case for a bit of a paradigm shift ...We know effective leadership matters. We know it has mattered for student test scores. But it also matters for student attendance."