Understanding Chronic Absenteeism

What Research Tells Us about Poor Attendance at School

By Valerie L. Marsh

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020

Since the beginning of compulsory education in this country, absenteeism has been a concern, one that educators identify as among the most persistent challenges schools face.1 Yet, it wasn’t until 2016 that the U.S. Department of Education issued a report that raised awareness of chronic absenteeism as a serious problem.2 Based on the 2015–2016 Civil Rights Data Collection survey of 95,000 schools across the nation, more than 7 million students are missing 15 days or more of school a year, the defining criterion of chronic absenteeism. These 15 days or more translate to missing over three weeks of school; the absent 7 million equates to 16 percent of the U.S. student population, approximately one out of every six students. Moreover, 2 percent of students are missing a lot more—at least 25 percent of school days, which represents 45 days or more of school a year. These statistics reveal huge numbers of young people existing on the margins of learning, school community, and educational opportunity.

Monitoring students who are chronically absent originated with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law passed in 2015, which also provides federal funding for training that reduces absenteeism. Since then, 36 states and the District of Columbia have shifted to an accountability measure of chronic absenteeism as an indicator of school quality. This past school year (2018–2019) was the first year these schools disclosed a chronic absenteeism rate in their end-of-year school report cards.

Chronic absenteeism is a particular way of monitoring attendance, more powerful than truancy or average daily attendance, two previously applied methods.3 Unlike average daily attendance, which counts how many students show up on a given day, or truancy, which measures unexcused absences only, chronic absenteeism identifies how many students miss at least 15 days for any reason, excused or unexcused. Chronic absenteeism enables schools to see patterns of student absences that, when they accrue, significantly impede achievement.4 With these new attendance measures in place, chronically absent students are less easily lost in daily attendance snapshots. Many believe moving to chronic absenteeism as a measurement is a more specific and useful data point to properly address school attendance and the myriad risk factors tied to absenteeism.

Why Students Miss School

Both race and income are predictors of absenteeism; Pacific Islander, American Indian, black, and Latinx students have the highest rates of absenteeism. English language learners (ELLs) and children with disabilities are also more likely than their peers to be chronically absent. Poverty is also indicative of a greater risk of missing school in significant percentages.5 And since urban schools comprise more students of color and low-income students, we know that absenteeism is a pressing issue in such schools, and that it is more severe in larger schools than smaller ones.6

Students miss school for various reasons; for students of color, ELLs, students with disabilities, and students who live with poverty, those reasons multiply.7 A primary deterrent to attendance is an inhospitable school culture. Students often refuse to attend school to avoid conditions they perceive as unsafe, such as bullying, harassment, and embarrassment.8 These deterrents correspond to a chaotic school atmosphere, where students and their families feel disconnected to other adults and children in the community.9 A dilapidated facility can also make students feel unsafe and affect their sense of belonging and desire to spend time in school.10 Young people understand that broken water fountains, mold-infested classrooms, or missing bathroom tiles that go unfixed communicate a lack of concern for them.

Student mobility (families moving in and out of school districts) also lowers attendance. Incidents of student mobility are more common in low-income areas, where low-wage earners tend to move more often for work or where immigrant families travel back to their home countries for extended stays.11 Other challenges families confront that contribute to chronic absenteeism include illness, family responsibilities, and limited transportation.12

How Absenteeism Relates to Student Outcomes

Absenteeism links to low achievement in urban districts.13 And since urban schools comprise a higher percentage of students of color and students living with poverty, absenteeism can be understood as contributing to the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts. Thus, reducing absenteeism is a move to reduce inequity. Beginning in the early years, students who are chronically absent are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade,14 making them four times more likely to be pushed out of high school, compared with their peers.15 In other words, low attendance in elementary school predicts low attendance throughout schooling.16 This trend culminates during the high school years, when nearly 20 percent of students are chronically absent, compared with 12 percent in middle school and 11 percent in elementary school. Ninth grade is a particularly vulnerable year for low attendance, and it correlates strongly with achievement for students in urban schools.

While the connections between low attendance, low academic achievement, and pushout rates are well supported in research, such outcomes are indicative of other factors that relate to a child’s health and well-being. Therefore, when schools look to increase attendance, they expect that achievement will improve. Just as important, an effort to systematically improve attendance can influence positive changes in school culture and student wellness.

Approaches That Work

In this article, we focus on the students who are absent the most by studying the schools they attend, which are commonly located in urban settings. Through reviewing research and studying successful practices of other urban schools, we argue that teachers and schools can improve the attendance patterns of vulnerable students.

When we began our research in 2016, we had a special interest in studying best practices in attendance, as the University of Rochester, where I work, was at the beginning of a five-year effort to revitalize East High School, our city’s oldest, largest, lowest-performing school. At the time this university-school partnership began, East was experiencing widespread absenteeism, low graduation rates, and low academic achievement, thus facing closure by the state. As part of our revitalization effort, we reviewed research that documented the problem of absenteeism as well as successful interventions. For the latter, we also sought out other urban schools in New York state with similar demographics of high poverty (at least 85 percent) and underserved populations (at least 80 percent) that demonstrated exemplar attendance (90 percent or higher). These high attendance figures distinguish these schools. At the time we were seeking out such schools, the state required a reporting of average daily attendance, rather than the more specific measurement of reporting chronic absenteeism; thus, we used the data that was available to identify schools.

Once we found several such schools, we visited them. They are all located in and around the urban centers of Rochester and New York City—the only urban areas where poverty reaches similar depths. Through our visits, we learned that urban schools where students show up, day in and day out, prioritize four main practices:17

  • A welcoming school culture;
  • Personal contact with parents and families;
  • Programs and systems to address and improve attendance; and
  • Record keeping and logistics;

These components are supported not only in research but also by the practical experiences of people working in schools that have achieved success with attendance.

A Welcoming School Culture

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020The schools we visited credit a welcoming culture as the most influential factor in their success in improving attendance. Specifically, they foster close relationships with adults and peers, offer a safe school atmosphere, and provide engaging curriculum and instruction.18

Several schools incorporate time into the school day dedicated to building relationships, through an advisory period, when students gather with teachers to discuss a variety of topics, such as college and career readiness, or explore hobbies. Through such class periods or in less structured ways, students feel cared for by their teachers, administrators, and counseling team. Students with whom we spoke may not have always liked the decisions, curricula, or policies of their school, but they respect them because they understand the purposes and caring behind them, established through relationships.

At East, we approached the strengthening of relationships and enhancing school culture by implementing restorative practices throughout staff and teacher training, student support and counseling, academic interventions, and behavioral and disciplinary protocols.19 Gaining popularity in schools throughout the country, restorative practices are based on building and repairing relationships within the school community.* Our school incorporated a 30-minute class period called “Family Group,”20 where a small group of students meet daily with each other and at least two teachers (whom they call “Carents”) for the purposes of relationship building. Family Group relies on restorative practices like circling and intentional listening. According to East teacher and Family Group coach Annaliese Wilmarth, “We like to say that Family Group is 80 percent fun, 20 percent work.” Family Group coaches design lesson plans for Carents, which align with the school’s vision and mission. In this way, not only do students connect with each other and their teachers, but they do so with East’s guiding principles in mind, thus strengthening their connection to their school’s identity. Family Group activities are often celebratory (e.g., recognizing someone’s birthday) and promote social connections (e.g., bake-off competitions).

East teacher and Family Group Carent Gloribel Arvelo-Park explained how relationships formed in Family Group can affect attendance: “We circle up every day, and so if a student hasn’t been present and they’ve been absent, the rest of the group will come after them. It’s like, Why were you not here? Don’t you understand you’re not going to graduate? You have to come. So that’s good peer pressure, and it’s worked for some of them.”21 East student Glerizbeth explained her specific experience of what Arvelo-Park described: “We have one scholar [in our Family Group], and all of a sudden in the middle of the school year, he would just not come to school anymore. So we were like, oh my God, where is this student at? Like, he would say that he’s been at East for longer than we could ever imagine. And we didn’t even know about him. So that’s a change that you can tell, because maybe [before Family Groups] you were a student that nobody knew, but [now] at least 10 people in the school know who you are. One teacher in the school knows who you are. We can make sure that we notice when there’s somebody in the school that’s missing.”22 With caring relationships in place, absent students are less likely to go unnoticed.

A welcoming school culture also involves cultivating an environment that feels safe. As one principal told us, “The biggest thing I’ve found is, you make the school safe, the kids show up.”23 Safety is fostered not only through maintaining the physical condition of the school building and facilities,24 but also in the aforementioned relationship building. Principals greet students at the front of school every morning, believing this gesture sends an important, welcoming message.

Additionally, some schools provide food for students who attend weekly open library nights to study. Buildings are noticeably clean, and teachers and other staff are highly visible in hallways and interacting with students regularly.

At East, we rely on restorative conferences or “peace circles” to foster an atmosphere of safety, and we follow—or sometimes intercept—a conflict when repair is needed. During a restorative conference, everyone involved sits together in a circle with a mediator. Each participant has an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story, while everyone else listens. Consequently, conflicts are often headed off before escalating to physical altercations. The less fighting, the more safe students feel. As a result, at East, we have seen a significant reduction in the overall number of suspensions. The suspension rate dropped 80 percent between the 2014–2015 school year (2,468 suspensions) and the 2018–2019 school year (486 suspensions).

A related safety component is school-based health centers (SBHCs), which offer health services (such as primary, oral, and vision care) to students and families during the school day. While we did not observe SBHCs at the schools we visited, East provides one, which has been expanded through the university-school partnership and the university’s medical and dental centers. The school’s health clinic works to limit absenteeism by facilitating access to services on campus, thus limiting illness and time spent visiting doctors.

Providing engaging and rigorous learning experiences is another way schools offer a welcoming culture. One principal believes that what happens in the classroom is the “biggest component” to his school’s successful attendance effort. Indicating the interplay between engaging curricula and relationship building, he explained, “If the kids don’t like you, they don’t want to learn from you, so you’ll see our teachers have great rapport with kids.”25

Schools communicate high expectations by offering courses that enable students to earn college credit, which also helps them financially, as it lessens the number of credits they need to take in college. Teachers support students striving to succeed, some by offering weekly afterschool help sessions and posting their availability, so students know when they can get help. Schools support afterschool learning by providing free bus passes for later departures. Students say that knowing their teachers are willing to stay late helps them remain motivated.

At East, we approached curriculum and instruction with a combination of culturally relevant pedagogy and the Understanding by Design26 planning framework, and, like the schools we visited, plenty of opportunities to receive help and support, with a focus on relationships. Each student’s schedule includes at least one daily period in the “support room,” when East provides teacher-generated academic interventions and learning plans based upon student assessment data. The school offers a weekly Saturday school option as well as lunch opportunities to meet with teachers, providing academic support in more relaxed, less intense atmospheres that are conducive to relationship building.

Personal Contact with Parents and Families

Schools with exemplar attendance recognize families as a resource to improving attendance and work to strengthen connections with them. Teachers, attendance aides, social workers, counselors, and administrators “give a human quality to corrective action.”27 A consistent—even dogged—personal approach to communicating with families of chronically absent students is a hallmark of successful attendance programs.

At some schools, teachers call home within 24 hours for each student who misses class. They communicate their priority on attendance in conjunction with their care for students. In turn, students respond. While teacher involvement in outreach to families is suggested by research,28 it has also been noted that teachers need support and training in order to successfully take on this added responsibility.

The schools we visited have a regular, specific practice of home visits for chronically absent students. Some dedicate a family liaison focused on monitoring and encouraging attendance, a component of a comprehensive attendance program that strengthens home-school connections.29 Families often perceive the liaison as their primary connection to the school, especially if that person is part of their community—living in the neighborhood, speaking their home language. Once the liaison gains families’ trust, parents will initiate contact with them when they need help finding their child or ensuring they are on their way to school.

At East, we have developed an approach to building home-school connections that resembles those of the schools we visited—regular contact with families, home visits, and language interpreters. The attendance team meets weekly to discuss each chronically absent student. Not only do staff members attend these meetings, but partner agencies are also invited. As such, community organizations like the Ibero-American Action League, a dual language service agency that supports local families, collaborate with school staff at these meetings. Often, partner agencies have prior relationships with families, thus another point of connection that is often necessary to reach and support a child’s attendance.

Like most of the schools we visited, East also employs a family liaison, Dana Michaud, dedicated to attendance. Like other effective liaisons, she develops relationships with families that spans years. She approaches families with an attitude of caring, explaining, “Once you talk to them and they see that you’re really there because you care—and I really do—then they come to see you as a resource.”

For home visits, which Michaud regularly conducts, the school also provides an opportunity for teachers who can volunteer to spend a weekend visiting families whose children are starting to accrue absences. The visits are focused on sharing the good work these students are doing when they do attend, rather than the absences.

The quality of the contact matters as well. Simply calling home multiple times is not enough, and in fact can alienate families, depending on how the conversation goes. Therefore, school staff members are trained in restorative practices and in understanding trauma when working with families. This training affects the quality of the interactions, which are characterized by compassion, rather than disappointment. As former East assistant principal Lia Festenstein explained, “It means a lot to families when you notice little things that might be a struggle or a barrier to them, like parent participation in an event, and you ask parents to come. Taking the bus in January to come to an event is a real pain in the backside. I get that. If I say, ‘Listen. Why don’t I just drive you home?’ People appreciate that.” Again and again, we see that meaningful family connections are made with caring attitudes and a widely woven safety net of school personnel and community partners.

Programs and Systems to Address and Improve Attendance

Schools successful in improving attendance translate this priority into positively oriented incentive programs (rather than punishments). These incentives can look like posters mounted around the school communicating the importance of good attendance, awards for attendance, and sometimes contests that encourage attendance. Some schools use monetary rewards when students enact the school’s mission statement (e.g., being focused, being accountable). Students can use their rewards to purchase items from the school store, to enter raffles to win gift cards, or to contribute to, and thus alleviate, part of the cost of a class trip.

At East, we too post messages around school showing off attendance numbers and incentivizing graduation goals, and provide awards along with celebrations for students with good attendance. While at the beginning of the university-school partnership, the school provided material incentives, like a new hoodie for perfect quarterly attendance, the focus has evolved over time. According to Festenstein, these types of incentives are “a little bit less necessary [because] I think it’s somewhat more culturally understood at this point—like the culture of East—that attendance is important. We talk about it all the time.” Therefore, incentives are more focused on recognition of learning. During monthly grade-level town hall meetings, for example, select students share a piece of work that they’re particularly proud of with the whole class. According to Festenstein, this practice provides a forum for the school community to see and value excellent work and encourage attendance.

Record Keeping and Logistics

The schools we visited have a committed, systematic approach to the logistics and the recording of attendance. Some have instituted electronic systems, where students might swipe an ID card as they enter the building, or apps that track attendance. These techniques give schools immediate information about who is present at the start of the day. These systems can also generate letters to parents at specific intervals or send texts immediately. Sometimes parents are surprised their child hasn’t made it in yet, and shortly after receiving notice via text or phone call, the student will arrive at school. Schools are diligent about comparing period attendance against the morning attendance report, and they often find that students who were initially marked absent are actually present.

Similarly, schools are careful to identify students who are officially on their enrollment rosters but who have moved out of their school or district, and therefore should not be included in their absent figures. For period-to-period attendance, we visited a school that plays music, rather than a bell, to signify the end of a class period and the transition time to the next period. Once the music stops, halls are expected to be empty. This is followed by hall sweeps, when remaining students are sent to their classrooms or a separate location. Students prefer the music, describing it as less institution-like than bells.

Another way to monitor attendance is through coordinated, weekly counseling meetings that include attendance issues. School psychologists and counselors consider 10 or more days absent (and also chronic tardiness) as an indicator of other issues—often mental health issues. Sometimes schools make changes to their master schedules in order to improve attendance, like changing the start of the school day to coincide with the city bus schedule.

At East, most of these systems—such as automatic letters sent home, tracking period-to-period attendance, automatized alerts for a home visit, and weekly attendance team meetings—are in place. The school has bolstered some of these approaches as well. The weekly attendance team meetings, referenced earlier, include not only school staff (social workers, teachers, counselors, administrators, and family liaisons) but also representatives from community and county agencies that have unique access to information and relationships with families. The team approach also relies on teachers, particularly in their roles as Family Group “Carents.” Together, the team members provide a more robust way of supporting students and their families, and improving attendance.

Schools in urban communities with high concentrations of poverty and ethnically diverse student populations have demonstrated that a combination of a welcoming school culture, personal contact with parents and families, programs and systems, and record keeping and logistics helps move the needle to increase attendance. Now, more than four years into our partnership with East, we are starting to see encouraging signs that our efforts are making an impact. Over the past five years, East has gone from an average daily attendance figure of 77 percent in grades 7–12 to 90 percent in grades 6–8 and 82 percent in grades 9–12. And, its chronic absenteeism rate has dropped 12 percentage points, from 57 percent to 45 percent.

While these numbers are trending in the right direction, they are not enough. Like at most urban schools, the effort to improve and maintain good attendance is a long-term, ongoing commitment that remains at the top of the school’s priorities. We know that no matter how thoughtful and research based the curricula, no matter how dedicated and well trained the staff, no matter the overall mission of the school, if students are not present, they can’t learn.


Valerie L. Marsh is an assistant professor in the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, the assistant director for the university’s Center for Urban Education Success, and a former English language arts teacher.

*For more on restorative approaches to school discipline, see “Learning to Switch Gears” in the Winter 2015–2016 issue of American Educator. (back to article)

For more on how partnerships with health centers can connect families and schools, see “Where It All Comes Together” in the Fall 2015 issue of American Educator. (back to article)

For more on the importance of home visits, see “Connecting with Students and Families through Home Visits” in the Fall 2015 issue of American Educator. (back to article)

Endnotes

1. M. A. Gottfried and E. L. Hutt, eds., introduction to Absent from School: Understanding and Addressing Student Absenteeism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2019).

2. U.S. Department of Education, Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools: A Hidden Educational Crisis (Washington, DC: 2016).

3. R. Balfanz and V. Byrnes, The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, May 2012).

4. C. S. Parke and G. Y. Kanyongo, “Student Attendance, Mobility, and Mathematics Achievement in an Urban School District,” Journal of Educational Research 105, no. 3 (2012): 161–175.

5. S. M. Dougherty and J. Childs, “Attending to Attendance,” in Absent from School: Understanding and Addressing Student Absenteeism, ed. M. A. Gottfried and E. L. Hutt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2019), 53–66; and J. J. Wood, “Understanding and Addressing Attendance Problems in Urban Schools,” in Emerging Thought and Research on Student, Teacher, and Administrator Stress and Coping, ed. G. S. Gates et al. (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2007), 3–34.

6. S. B. Sheldon and J. L. Epstein, “Getting Students to School: Using Family and Community Involvement to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism,” School Community Journal 14, no. 2 (2004): 39–56.

7. D. Ready, “Socioeconomic Disadvantage, School Attendance, and Early Cognitive Development: The Differential Effects of School Exposure,” Sociology of Education 83, no. 4 (2010): 271–286.

8. Balfanz and Byrnes, The Importance of Being in School.

9. J. L. Epstein and S. B. Sheldon, “Present and Accounted For: Improving Student Attendance through Family and Community Involvement,” Journal of Educational Research 95, no. 5 (2002): 308–318.

10. V. Durán-Narucki, “School Building Condition, School Attendance, and Academic Achievement in New York City Public Schools: A Mediation Model,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 28, no. 3 (2008): 278–286.

11. Parke and Kanyongo, “Student Attendance.”

12. Balfanz and Byrnes, The Importance of Being in School.

13. Durán-Narucki, “School Building Condition”; and R. J. Steward et al., “School Attendance Revisited: A Study of Urban African American Students’ Grade Point Averages and Coping Strategies,” Urban Education 43, no. 5 (2008): 519–536.

14. U.S. Department of Education, Chronic Absenteeism.

15. Sheldon and Epstein, “Getting Students to School.”

16. Wood, “Understanding and Addressing Attendance Problems.”

17. V. L. Marsh, “Attendance Practices That Work: What Research Says, What Practitioners Say,” Center for Urban Education Success (white paper, University of Rochester, 2016); and V. L. Marsh, “Attendance Up Close: Reflecting on School Visits,” Center for Urban Education Success (white paper, University of Rochester, 2017).

18. S. B. Sheldon, “Improving Student Attendance with School, Family, and Community Partnerships,” Journal of Educational Research 100, no. 5 (August 2007); and J. W. Dougherty, Attending to Attendance: Fastback 450 (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa International, 1999).

19. V. L. Marsh, “Becoming Restorative: Three Schools Transitioning to a Restorative Practices Culture,” Center for Urban Education Success (white paper, University of Rochester, 2017).

20. Warner School of Education, “Family Group: Why?,” video, www.vimeo.com/314256350.

21. Warner School of Education, “Family Group: How?,” video, www.vimeo.com/314200382.

22. Warner School of Education, “Restorative Practices,” video, www.vimeo.com/314582084.

23. Marsh, “Attendance Practices That Work.”

24. Durán-Narucki, “School Building Condition.”

25. Marsh, “Attendance Practices That Work.”

26. G. Wiggins and J. McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005).

27. Epstein and Sheldon, “Present and Accounted For.”

28. Sheldon, “Improving Student Attendance.”

29. Parke and Kanyongo, “Student Attendance.”

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020
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