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How We Can Fix Chronic Absenteeism (Opinion)

As almost all school people know by now, the number of public school students who are chronically absent has ballooned. Our analysis showed chronic absenteeism at almost 30 percent or 14.7 million students during the 2021-22 school year, nearly double prepandemic levels. They remained high in 2022-23, according to data available from states.

This attendance crisis is having a significant and broad impact on learning, given that two-thirds of enrolled students attended a school with high (from 20 percent to 29 percent) or extreme (over 30 percent) levels of chronic absence. Chronic absenteeism at these unprecedented levels affects the learning experience of all students, even those who show up every day. When chronic absence reaches high levels, the churn in the classroom makes it harder for teachers to set classroom norms and to teach and harder for peers to learn.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal a strong association between recent declines in academic performance and rising levels of absenteeism, a finding that reinforces earlier research.

Chronic absence is also both an indicator and a warning sign of educational inequities. Before COVID-19 caused school buildings to close and schools to shift operations, students of color and those living in poverty already saw higher levels of chronic absence. During the pandemic, these same families were more likely to experience illness, death, trauma, and economic hardship—which make showing up to school more difficult. And students living in low-income communities typically have less access to resources that help them make up for lost learning opportunities.

The problem is grave and yet, based on our extensive work with states, districts, and practitioners across the country, we see a clear road map for school communities to reduce chronic absence. A first step is recognizing the link between school engagement and attendance. If students and families do not feel engaged and connected to their schools, they are more likely to be chronically absent. At the same time, if students frequently miss school, they are less likely to experience the positive learning experiences and relationships that motivate showing up every day.

Here’s the work that comes next:

Restore the belief that showing up to school every day matters for student well-being and academic success. After extended periods of interrupted and distance learning, families may mistakenly believe attending school in person doesn’t matter because students can work from home to make up for what they missed in the classroom. But this overlooks the significant benefits students gain from being at school. We have developed messaging that takes into account today’s reality and urge everyone in the community to help convey that Showing Up Matters for REAL because it offers opportunities to

  • Build Routines that reduce stress and create a sense of safety and security.
  • Increase Engagement by helping students to connect with peers and school staff.
  • Access resources including meals, physical and mental health services, and enrichment activities including sports, clubs, music, and after-school and summer programs.
  • Learn more by helping students gain proficiency in reading and math and graduate from high school.

Address the erosion in the positive conditions for learning crucial to motivating daily attendance. To nurture a sense of belonging, connection, and support, schools can structure daily opportunities for students to connect with others through activities such as morning greetings, breakfast in the classroom, peer mentoring, or smaller learning environments. To promote physical and emotional well-being, schools can encourage healthy habits at home and in the classroom, ensure access to health screenings and services, and provide clear guidance about when to go to school or stay home when a student experiences a symptom of illness. Equally important, schools can offer relevant and challenging coursework, establish community internships that lead to future careers, and connect students to fun and enriching preschool, after-school, and summer programs.

Avoid punitive responses and focus on positive problem-solving when absences do occur. What improves attendance is partnering with students and families to identify and address the root causes that lead students to miss school in the first place, whether they are barriers to getting to school, negative school experiences, or a lack of connection. Too often, the initial reaction to missing school is to blame the child or their family for not caring enough to make school a priority. This response can make it difficult to find a solution because it causes the student and family to feel alienated and distrustful. When schools and community partners start with respect and listening to students and families, they can use insights gained to tailor support and draw upon family strengths to develop solutions.

Use data-informed district and school teams to guide action and identify effective practices. By regularly reviewing attendance and chronic-absence data by grade, school, and student population, teams can determine who is struggling in order to target supports. Teams can also identify if a particular grade, classroom, or school has comparatively better results and could be a source of practices worth replicating elsewhere.

Finally, invest in a long-term, multiyear approach. Consider the Connecticut experience. Prior to the pandemic, the Connecticut education department had made significant investments in improving attendance by collecting accurate and publicly available data, offering easy-to-use state guidance promoting a prevention-oriented, multitiered attendance approach, and working across agencies. When the pandemic struck, the department shifted to monthly collection of attendance data, which allowed the governor to notice as early as January 2021 that chronic absence had increased significantly. The response was the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, wherein home visitors help families establish trusting relationships with school staff, encourage regular attendance, and assist families with summer placements and after-school learning.

An evaluation found the attendance for students served by LEAP improved, on average, by 15 percentage points. While Connecticut’s journey is not over, it is starting to pay off: Chronic absenteeism rates declined in the state from just under 24 percent in 2021-22 to 20 percent in 2022-23.

Now is not the time to accept high chronic absence as a new normal. Ensuring all students have an equal opportunity to succeed requires redoubling our efforts to engage students and families in learning and restoring a routine of attendance every day.

Editor’s note: In conversation with the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Education Week Opinion sought writers to explore important issues that surface when NAEP scores are released. How should educators understand those issues, and what should they look for from the reading and mathematics tests being taken now, slated to be released in January 2025? This is the second essay in the series.

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