The Hidden Reason Your School Improvement Strategies Aren’t Working: Chronic Absenteeism

When a student in Joanna Smith's sixth-grade class missed over 30 days of school, Smith worried. Would her student pass the sixth grade? And what if her chronic absenteeism continued throughout school? How would that affect her chances of success in life? Phone calls and letters home didn't help, so Smith decided to organize a home visit.

And with a school policy that penalized lateness, the student's mindset was, "If I'm late, I might as well stay home because I'm going to get in trouble."

She discovered the student took two buses and two trains to get to school (because the family was invoking school choice). And with a school policy that penalized lateness, the student's mindset was, "If I'm late, I might as well stay home because I'm going to get in trouble."

With an intervention plan where lateness wasn't penalized, backed by data that explained to the student's parents how chronic absenteeism impacted their daughter's learning, things changed. Smith's student avoided failing a grade level. And the following school year she missed just six days of school. But without Smith’s digging that student may have slipped through the cracks without anyone understanding why.

The experience showed Smith that "the way we tackle attendance needs a redesign and educators, as well as technology, can lead the way."

Knowing 6.5 million U.S. students miss more than three weeks of school every year, Smith created AllHere in 2015. This attendance intervention and management platform use data schools already collect to identify students who are at risk of chronic absenteeism. Surveys help schools understand the root causes of chronic absenteeism, and then the platform suggests and tracks proven intervention strategies designed to help administrators and educators fight chronic absenteeism and its effects on students.

EdSurge talked with Smith about how chronic absenteeism impacts student learning, school funding, and much more. She shares common causes (and misconceptions) around chronic absenteeism and provides specific advice on how schools can tackle this widespread issue.

Joanna Smith

EdSurge: What is chronic absenteeism?

Joanna Smith: Chronic absenteeism is missing 10 percent of the school year for any reason. If you take excused absences, plus unexcused absences and add suspensions, that's your measure of chronic absence. It is basically missing so much school—for any reason—that a student is academically at risk. And it impacts students across grades K–12, meaning it's not just a high school problem.

Chronic absence is a better measure of how consistently students miss significant portions of school than daily attendance. You can have an 80 percent ADA (average daily attendance) rate, and it can mask persistent absenteeism.

How does chronic absenteeism impact schools and students?

Chronic absenteeism functions like bacteria in a hospital, meaning it's often an unseen force that can undermine otherwise effective efforts.

Similarly, schools are seeing it's possible to have great school reform plans, curriculum, instruction, and fantastic school lunch. But chronic absenteeism undermines the impact of those efforts. We need to consider that some school improvement fail, not because interventions are ineffective, but because too many students are missing school to benefit from these efforts.

You can have an 80 percent average daily attendance rate, and it can mask persistent absenteeism.

For example, in pre-K and kindergarten, absenteeism reduces their readiness for school. By third grade, we see lower reading scores in kids who are chronically absent and the same for math scores among 8th grade students. All of this culminates in diminished graduation rates, not to mention sub-par college and career readiness.

Schools used to think about attendance challenges and attendance issues only in the context of high school age students. But for schools, chronic absenteeism as early as kindergarten and first grade leads to lower math and reading skills in grades one to three.

The good news is chronic absenteeism can be reduced, and its impact can be reversed. That makes reducing chronic absenteeism a critical and powerful untapped lever of school improvement and student advancement.

Why is it important for school leaders to understand the root causes of a student's chronic absenteeism?

If you ask a lot of schools why students are chronically absent, there's usually a lot of guesswork, but AllHere helps uncover actual contributing factors that include myths such as absences are only a problem if they're unexcused or students are in older grades. Then there are barriers such as a chronic illness, poor transportation, trauma, no safe path to school, and homelessness. There are students reacting adversely to school when they are struggling academically or socially, or there's also a lack of engagement, poor school climate, and lack of meaningful relationships with adults in a school.

AllHere uses a research-backed online survey designed to gather root-cause information from students, family members, and at times, teachers and staff.

School partners can share the survey seamlessly and gather data securely. That helps them identify root-cause experiences between subgroups of youths—including race, ethnicity, gender, and grade level—to understand what is happening as drivers of absenteeism. They can also better understand the voice of their students, teachers, staff, and family members when it comes to reasons for absenteeism.

Can you share an example of how schools benefit from measuring chronic absenteeism?

We support school systems as large as, for example, Prince George County Public schools with over 130,000 students down to small school systems of 2,000 to 3,000 students.

We do this in three ways. We help them to identify the root cause of why their students are absent, make sure the right student gets the right support at the right time, and then track the efficacy of that work. We’ve helped school systems gain an average of 27 days over one to two academic years. They recover up to 47% of their students from chronic absence status year to year.

And in cases where there is a link between absenteeism and state funding, they're able to recover between four to nine times the cost of implementing AllHere. This isn't hypothetical funding. This is real money that goes towards keeping the lights on, ordering books, and providing the kind of structural environment that enables schools to execute against their core work.

Attendance Case Study: Michael J. Perkin Elementary School

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