Absenteeism epidemic hinders academic achievement

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Missing school is serious business, and its impact on achievement and dropout rates has been vastly underestimated.

So says a new report from Johns Hopkins University, "The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation's Public Schools." "Like bacteria in a hospital," the report notes, "chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered," and it often goes undetected. Just six states keep records indicating "chronic absenteeism," generally defined as missing 10 percent or more of all school days, or about 18 days a year.

That would add up to nearly a month of school days. The result: lower achievement and higher dropout rates.

The study estimates a national rate of 10 percent chronic absenteeism, though researchers suspect the rate is more likely around 15 percent. That's 5 million to 7.5 million students who are absent from 18 to 20 days of the school year. The six reporting states (Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island) show absentee rates from 6 to 23 percent. In high-poverty urban areas, up to one-third of the students are chronically missing from school; in poor rural areas, one quarter of them are chronically absent.

The problem is most pressing among low-income students, and increases as children rise from middle school through 12th grade. Gender and ethnic background do not appear to affect attendance.

Wherever absenteeism occurs, its results are clear: Nationally, chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first grade, with the negative impact twice as likely among students from low-income families. Achievement gaps increase at all levels. In Baltimore, researchers found a strong correlation between sixth-grade attendance and the rate at which students graduated from high school on time .

Further research shows students miss school for three primary reasons: They cannot attend, due to illness, family responsibilities, housing instability or involvement with juvenile justice; they will not attend because of bullying, unsafe conditions, harassment or embarrassment; or they do not attend because they (and/or their parents) do not value education.

Knowing the causes of absenteeism can help guide solutions, many of which are already being successfully implemented. The best anti-absentee programs involve close tracking of attendance, diagnosing reasons for absence, building strong relationships with students and families, recognizing students for good attendance ,and often having a "second shift" of adults in schools to follow up with absent students.

Among specific successes is a program called AttenDANCE, where 200 sixth-graders who attended 95 percent of their second quarter at Dever-McCormack K-8 School in Boston, earned permission to attend a dance at a hall across the street. The incentive, along with calls to absent students, tutoring and case management (to provide counseling, healthcare and housing where needed) is part of Diplomas Now, a graduation advocacy nonprofit also operating successfully in Washington, D.C., Miami and Los Angeles.

In New York City, where more than 200,000 students are chronically absent, a campaign to keep kids in school ensures that more than 30,000 students get wake-up calls from celebrities like Michael Jordan and Whoopi Goldberg. In addition, mentors follow students' progress, and subway signs keep the issue fresh ("It's 9 a.m. Do you know where your children are?")

"The good news is if we do measure and monitor absenteeism, there is quite a bit that can be done to improve it with existing resources," the report concludes. "As a nation we must act, to ensure that our students are ready, willing and able to attend school every day. Their future, and hence our future, depends on it." [Virginia Myers]

May 24, 2012