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Chronic Absenteeism Could Be the Biggest Problem Facing Schools Right Now (Opinion)

Chronic absenteeism has become a grim reality across the nation. Nationwide, chronic absenteeism nearly doubled from 15 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2023. How bad are these numbers, really, and how can schools respond? My friend and colleague Nat Malkus has the most recent available numbers in his Return to Learn Tracker. In addition, he’s out with an illuminating (if troubling) new report, and just recently testified before Congress on the challenges we face. When he penned me a note on his latest findings, I asked him if he’d be willing to expand it into something I could share with all of you. He was kind enough to agree, and here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick, you recently wrote about how to replace seat time with mastery-based learning models. Near the end, you passingly mentioned a group that’s captivated my attention as we work to reset from COVID-induced school closures: students who are chronically absent. Getting students back into structured educational rhythms after the pandemic disruptions is not going to be easy, but it will be necessary for us to recover from pandemic learning loss.

I know, everyone’s read a million stories on learning loss. The outlook is grim: Assessments indicate students are far behind, and they aren’t making the progress we would hope for. Tell me about it: Since launching the Return to Learn Tracker in 2021, we’ve tracked data on some discouraging topics in the field. Remote learning, masking, public school enrollment changes, and now—chronic absenteeism.

What do I mean by that? Chronic absenteeism is typically measured as the percentage of students missing 10 percent or more of the school year. This translates to a student missing more than three and a half weeks out of the year, or nearly a full month of not learning the material and interpersonal skills that are vital to students’ success.

This is not a new problem, but COVID shutdowns turned it into a crisis. In 2019, about 15 percent of students nationwide were chronically absent. By 2022, that jumped to 28 percent. Worse yet, it’s not even declining that much, despite a much rosier COVID picture. In 2023, the first true post-pandemic year without a COVID variant spike, 26 percent of students were chronically absent.

Unfortunately, just as learning loss was worse for the students who were already on the below-average performance side of the bell curve, so is chronic absenteeism. In a new paper, I show that in both the third of districts with the lowest achievement and also the third of districts with the highest rates of poverty, chronic absenteeism jumped 17 percentage points between 2019 and 2022: from 20 to 37 percent. Chronic absenteeism also varied by race, with rates increasing from 7 percent to 15 percent among Asian students, from 11 percent to 24 percent among white students, from 16 percent to 36 percent among Hispanic students, and from 18 percent to 39 percent among Black students. Rates were even worse for Hispanic and Black students in urban districts nationwide, at 41 percent and 46 percent, respectively. To say these numbers are troubling is an understatement. How can we expect and work toward minimizing learning loss with these levels of absenteeism? How do we expect achievement gaps to decline in the face of these attendance disparities?

When this many students are not in the classroom, it becomes an ongoing problem and affects more than just the absent students. Teachers will have to divert valuable class time toward helping chronically absent students catch up—which leaves less time to devote to students with more regular attendance, many of whom also need focused attention.

Ultimately, all students were impacted by the pandemic, and learning loss is still a pressing challenge. But, to my mind, chronic absenteeism is the first-order problem, and it is more critical to address than learning loss because it will hobble all academic recovery efforts.

While difficult, addressing chronic absenteeism could be more effective in addressing learning loss than other interventions. Indeed, schools can try tutoring their way out of learning loss, and they can try adding learning time to the academic calendar. But it is hard to imagine that such interventions would have a strong effect if students aren’t showing up to school in the first place. Moreover, unlike tutoring or extended learning time, addressing chronic absenteeism simply requires students and parents to return to pre-pandemic behavioral patterns. It doesn’t require them to break new ground.

It has long been my belief that school culture trumps all else. Students thrive in schools where their peers routinely show up, behave appropriately, and complete their schoolwork. Widespread and severe chronic absenteeism disrupts these fundamental routines and rhythms and can erode even the best culture of high expectations. If students can’t be expected to show up regularly, what should we expect regarding their attention in class or diligence in schoolwork?

For school leaders looking for some ways to move forward, I have a few suggestions. Set, or reset, high expectations for the school community. Make it clear to your teachers, parents, and students that exceptional pandemic practices are over and that reestablishing regular attendance is job number one. Bring your teachers into the effort: No emails, texts, or central-office outreach will change habits as effectively as regular contact from teachers who know students and their families. Use carrots but don’t ignore sticks: Bring on incentives and supports but don’t tackle a challenge this big by shying away from discussing families’ and students’ obligations and the potential consequences for not meeting them.

If we are serious about overcoming learning loss, shrinking achievement gaps, and shoring up public schools, chronic absenteeism needs to be our number one priority. This means leadership at the state and national levels, decisive action from school and district leaders, and effective engagement from teachers. It also means that parents need to fulfill their moral and legal duty and make sure their children show up to school.

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