Chronic absenteeism, a primary cause of poor academic achievement, is defined as missing at least 10 percent of days in a school year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences. For example, a student who misses as few as two days per month for each month of the school year is described as being chronically absent. In a school year, that’s 18 to 20 total missed school days.
Chronic absenteeism is linked to health disparities and the achievement gap
Being present in school every day matters. In addition to chronic absenteeism predicting low academic success, it also predicts which students may eventually drop out of school. Being chronically absent from school makes it hard for a student to keep up with the pace at which they are expected to learn and grow, causing that student to fall behind. Students who are chronically absent also miss out on opportunities to build friendships at school, become active in their school community and pursue future career interests.
Why aren’t students in school?
Unfortunately, many students are not consistently present at school. Patterns of chronic absenteeism reflect common equity issues: Students who come from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities and students involved in the juvenile justice system are more likely to be chronically absent. Additionally, major social determinants of health are intimately linked to chronic absenteeism. For example, factors like unsafe school conditions, bullying, housing instability, substance abuse and delinquency affect a student’s attendance.
A Better Picture of Poverty explores the connection between chronic absenteeism and the important social supports students need, especially in New York City. It shows that students who often miss school are also deeply affected by poverty, enrolled in dysfunctional schools and disconnected from social services. This report also explains how a community schools approach can connect students to supports in an effort to reduce chronic absenteeism.
School personnel are essential to eliminating chronic absenteeism
The first step in addressing chronic absenteeism is to understand what it is and who it affects. Knowing the causes and effects of a child being chronically absent can help inform solutions to reduce and ultimately eliminate this issue. Although eliminating chronic absenteeism may take years, school personnel can take steps now to help students succeed.
The federal initiative Every Student, Every Day produced a toolkit that outlines how schools can do more to prevent the long-term consequence of widespread chronic absenteeism, which is describes as “a population that is less educated, less healthy, underemployed, less financially stable, and more disenfranchised.”2 In the toolkit, the U.S. departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education joined together to acknowledge the severity of chronic absenteeism and to recommend action steps:
- Generate and act on absenteeism data.
o Prioritize the development of early warning prevention and intervention systems. Rates of chronic absenteeism are only so helpful. Strong data systems help schools and districts get timely information to prevent problems and intervene before it’s too late.
o Identify which students are or may soon be chronically absent from school. The next important step is to ask “why?” and to identify the underlying causes of absenteeism.
o Increase every student’s access to support services to address absenteeism before any student misses so much school that it is nearly impossible to catch up.
o Explore and enter into partnerships to increase and improve coordinated supports and interventions to address and eliminate chronic absenteeism. The community schools approach is an excellent framework for thinking about how to identify priorities and the partners who can assist.
- Create and deploy positive messages and measures.
o Implement positive and supportive engagement strategies to improve students’ attendance at, connection to and success in school. Consider mentoring, counseling and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).
o Refrain from using disciplinary measures, unless necessary. These are often ineffective, and can lead to unreasonable suspensions and expulsions from school and inappropriate referrals of schools and families to law enforcement.
- Focus communities on addressing chronic absenteeism.
o Raise awareness amongst youth and families about the importance of chronic absenteeism.
o Design trainings for school personnel and affiliated community partners that are aimed to identify root cause analyses of absenteeism trends.
o Support student success by using effective research and evidence-based tools and programs.
- Ensure responsibility across sectors.
o Communicate the key message: Chronic absenteeism is a problem that affects the entire community.
o Evaluate efforts across sectors to examine whether or not there has been progress toward eliminating chronic absenteeism.
o Work as a community so that everyone feels responsible for successfully addressing chronic absenteeism.
In addition to these four action steps, Every Student, Every Day also includes community action guides designed to support communitywide action to reduce chronic absenteeism.
Incentives as a way to eliminate chronic absenteeism
Rewarding students for being present in school has shown to be an effective and successful way to reduce absenteeism. For example, Diplomas Now operates AttenDANCE. The program rewards middle school students for being present at least 95 percent of their second quarter of school by letting them attend a dance. The incentive—along with calling absent students, tutoring, and case management to provide counseling, housing and healthcare—has been adopted across the country, including in Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami.3
Another incentive-based program, Count Me In!, has been implemented in some California schools. Whole districts are rewarded at the end of the trimester at the elementary school level, and at the end of the semester in middle and high schools. Students may also enter a year-end drawing for larger prizes. This program uses rewards, such as a new car for one lucky high schooler, to change the way parents and students view attendance. This program has been successful in increasing attendance at all levels.4
The most successful anti-absentee programs involve close tracking of attendance, identifying reasons for absence, building strong relationships with students and families, recognizing students for good attendance, and having assigned staff members to follow up with students who are absent.
 Kim Nauer, Nicole Mader, Gail Robinson, Tom Jacobs, et al., A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About NYC’s Lowest-Income Elementary Schools (New York: The New School Center for New York City Affairs, 2014), www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/BetterPictureofPoverty_PA_FINAL_001.pdf.
2 U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice, Every Student, Every Day: A Community Toolkit to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism (Washington, DC: 2015), www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/chronicabsenteeism/toolkit.pdf.
3 American Federation of Teachers, “Absenteeism Epidemic Hinders Academic Achievement” (2012), www.aft.org/news/absenteeism-epidemic-hinders-academic-achievement.
4 “Triumph Over Truancy: Tips for Improving Student Attendance,” www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin442.shtml.