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It may seem like an obvious solution to helping students succeed: Keep parents in the loop. But more emphasis is being placed on partnering with families by both researchers and the Every Student Succeeds Act. In particular, chronic absenteeism is now being tracked as never before, so schools are on the hunt for solutions. Chronic absenteeism is a stubborn problem, with about 8 million students in the United States missing more than 10 percent of school. Whether absences are excused, unexcused, or caused by suspensions, they add up to lower reading skills and higher dropout rates. Experiments with how best to tap families as a resource are starting to chip away at a longstanding tendency in education to address absences with stern warnings and even threats of court action. There’s now “a growing body of research that shows that punitive legalistic approaches aren’t how you get people to school,” says Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national initiative to address chronic absence. “It’s positive engagement and problem-solving that gets kids to school.”
When her son started missing school frequently as a fourth-grader, the school wasn’t too adamant about it and neither was Laurie Serrano. If he missed the bus, he stayed home, though she could have walked him.
“I didn’t have any education on the fact that that was keeping him behind,” she says.
Now schools are finding that one way to curb chronic absenteeism is rather simple: Communicate better with families.
New research shows that parents of high-absence students routinely underestimate the number of days their children miss. By letting them know, along with brief messages about how better attendance boosts achievement, schools can reap some cost-effective gains.
It’s an “understandable bias that parents have,” says Todd Rogers, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, who has led the research. “By trying to empower parents with corrective information, we’re asking them to engage … as partners in our shared interest in the student succeeding.”
Chronic absenteeism is a stubborn problem, with about 8 million students in the United States missing more than 10 percent of school. Whether absences are excused, unexcused, or caused by suspensions, they add up to lower reading skills and higher dropout rates.
Schools are on the hunt for solutions, because chronic absence is now being tracked as never before. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, starting this year all states have to publicly report it. Additionally, 35 states plus the District of Columbia have opted to include chronic absence in school accountability plans.
Experiments with how best to tap families as a resource are starting to chip away at a longstanding tendency in education to address absences with stern warnings and even threats of court action.
In the face of this “truancy mindset,” there’s now “a growing body of research that shows that punitive legalistic approaches aren’t how you get people to school; it’s positive engagement and problem-solving that gets kids to school,” says Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a national initiative to address chronic absence.
It’s part of a broader push in education to create more positive interactions with families. Most states mandate some degree of family engagement, and several, such as Massachusetts and New York, include it in their standards for educator evaluation.
In Los Angeles, Professor Rogers and Attendance Works changed the legalistic language of truancy letters to something friendlier and easier to read. The letters became 20 percent more effective, Rogers says, and have been recommended as a model for California.
In Rogers’ recent experiments, carefully crafted letters home have reduced chronic absenteeism by 10 percent or more in urban and suburban districts alike. The cost for each day of attendance gained has been about $5 to $10, a small fraction of the cost of intensive interventions that involve hiring mentors or social workers.
“Finding ways to provide parents with useful actionable information to support their kids [brings] crazy high returns on investment,” Rogers says.
The letters target the low-hanging fruit, Rogers acknowledges, and they don’t replace the need for comprehensive measures to assist students who miss the most school.
But as part of the solution, they offer something rare: a successful intervention that’s not too difficult to scale up.
A pilot project with kindergartners in Pittsburgh reduced chronic absenteeism significantly by engaging parents through two-way text messaging.
The school sent texts once a week in English or Spanish. Parents could then text back to a member of the AmeriCorps service group based at the elementary school, who would troubleshoot attendance barriers ranging from transportation to homelessness.
Before the experiment, nearly one-third of kindergartners had been missing more than 10 percent. By the end, only 13 percent were chronically absent. Rates at other schools in the district also declined, but to a much lower degree, Kenneth Smythe-Leistico and Lindsay Page reported in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk.
Chronic absence rates have been so difficult to budge that educators celebrate progress in small increments.
At Earl Boyles Elementary in the David Douglas School District in Portland, Ore., students and families receive wraparound supports from community organizations. When principal Ericka Guynes arrived 10 years ago, 18 percent of students were chronically absent.
“Now it’s 16.4 percent, which I know doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s a lot to shift,” she says.
The school has conducted home visits, revamped family conferences, and worked with parents starting at the preschool level to build up a sense of trust.
The message about attendance can sometimes be as simple as a game.
Ms. Serrano, who moved near Earl Boyles recently and is sending her daughter, Liddy, there this fall, participated in an August kindergarten transition program for parents.
The facilitator handed her a red card, while two other parents standing next to her were given green and yellow cards. Serrano represented a student who missed more than nine days, and had to take many steps backward. The yellow-card holder took fewer steps back. That’s how much children would get behind in learning, the facilitator said.
“I was pretty far back. The parent who missed no school was way up there. It just clicked for me,” Serrano says. After understanding why her son fell behind, she says, “I’m not going to make the same mistake with my daughter.”