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Attendance Is An Essential Ingredient for Educational Equity

Blog Series: Educating the Whole Child, on Attendance Matters by Hedy N. Chang

This post is part of LPI's Educating the Whole Child blog series, which explores research, policy, and practices to support students' healthy growth and development.

The start of the school year sets the tone for student attendance for the whole year. It’s during these first months that students develop the positive connections and relationships to peers and teachers that are essential to engagement, attendance, and successful learning. Students who are in class regularly have an opportunity to learn the concepts that lay the foundation for understanding what is taught as the year progresses. And showing up every day in those early weeks and months helps students, especially those in the very early grades, establish regular routines that support on-time attendance for the remainder of the year.

The trauma, isolation, and academic setbacks created by the pandemic make paying attention to attendance more important than ever. Early data suggest chronic absence has doubled nationwide. Sixteen million students—or one out of every three—are now missing so much school that they are at risk academically. Research shows that chronically absent students are less likely to read on grade level by 3rd grade, are more likely to score lower on standardized tests and get suspended in middle school, and are at least four times more likely to not complete high school. 

When students are chronically absent, it is a sign of challenges both outside and inside school that affect their ability to learn and, when left unaddressed, cause them to continue to miss more school. For example, unstable housing and unreliable transportation can make it difficult for students to attend school every day and to concentrate when they are present in class. Disengaging educational experiences, lack of close relationships with teachers and peers, or bullying can undermine students’ desire to show up to school every day.

Today’s high levels of chronic absence reflect educational and societal inequities that existed before COVID-19 and often have been intensified during the pandemic. Students living in poverty, students of color, students whose families speak languages other than English, and students with disabilities are more likely to be chronically absent from school—and typically lack the resources and opportunities to make up for lost time in the classroom.

Today’s high levels of chronic absence reflect educational and societal inequities that existed before COVID-19 and often have been intensified during the pandemic.

What Works to Reduce Chronic Absence

The good news is research and experience provide effective strategies for helping students attend school regularly. It starts with shifting away from a historically blaming mindset and response to absences. Punitive approaches undermine the ability of schools and community partners to understand why students miss school and to work together to develop meaningful solutions. With this collaborative mindset, data on chronic absence should be used to identify attendance challenges as soon as possible so that schools can partner with students and families to identify and resolve barriers to attendance.  

The key is not only offering support when an individual student is chronically absent, but also detecting when large groups of students face a challenge. In these cases, schools and districts must consider the need for programmatic solutions (such as creating mentoring programs, providing health services, or investing in restorative justice) or policy solutions (such as changing problematic school discipline policies or providing students discounts on public transportation). The type of support should reflect an understanding of the underlying problem that is creating absences for a group of students.

Schools and districts that are successful in reducing chronic absenteeism take a comprehensive, tiered approach to improving attendance. The first step is creating foundational school supports that promote positive conditions for learning. These include a healthy environment and positive school climate; access to engaging curriculum, needed learning supports, and computer technology; and strong student and family engagement.

District leaders, for their part, can systemically support effective school-level practice through investments in such areas as:

  • actionable data, such as offering easy access to real-time data reports;
  • positive family engagement, such as shifting away from punitively worded communications sent home about absences to caring and supportive communications;
  • capacity building, such as creating an attendance community of practice;
  • strategic partnerships, such as investing in community schools or school-based health services;
  • adequate and equitable resources, such as using data to prioritize home visits, mentoring, and tutoring; and
  • shared accountability, such as making chronic absence data available on the district website.

A Critical Investment

Ensuring students are engaged and have an equal opportunity to learn is achievable when school communities work together to build relationships, co-create solutions with students and families, and make the necessary investments in systems and needed supports. Chronic absence is like a canary in a coal mine. It is an early warning sign of challenges that, if left unaddressed, will cause much greater damage later. Paying attention to attendance now is essential to recovering from the pandemic and mitigating its damaging impact on the communities already struggling with educational and social inequities. 


Key Strategies for Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

  1. Avoid blame and communicate why regular attendance matters. Effective communication starts with sharing concern about students’ well-being and letting families know why showing up to school regularly is worthwhile. As detailed in the Showing Up Matters for R.E.A.L. Toolkit from Attendance Works, regular attendance offers an opportunity to build routines, increase engagement, gain access to resources, and support learning.
  2. Forge deep partnerships with students and families. Improving attendance requires building relationships with students and families to identify attendance barriers and co-create meaningful solutions. Parent Teacher Home Visits, for example, are a proven strategy for reducing chronic absence. Advisories in middle and high school and looping in the elementary grades (which allows a teacher to be with the same student for more than one year) are effective strategies for building relationships among students, families, and teachers
  3. Use data to prioritize supports. Use attendance data from the prior year and first weeks of school to identify which students were chronically absent and need additional support. Analysis of chronic absence data reveals that students experiencing a transition—such as entering kindergarten, middle school, or high school—can often benefit from extra outreach, engagement, and assistance with overcoming attendance barriers. Marginalized and often under-resourced students, such as students of color, students from low-income families, English language learners, or students with disabilities, also often benefit from these supports.
  4. Support engagement and learning in multiple settings. Supporting academic recovery, especially given the continued challenges with COVID-19, requires ensuring students and their families can connect to peers and adults and access learning materials in and outside the classroom. For example, if students must stay home because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or experience some other attendance barrier, access to virtual learning is essential. Technology can also help to ensure families can more easily connect with teachers and support learning at home and in other community settings. 
  5. Adopt a multidisciplinary team approach. Improving attendance is not a solo endeavor. It requires establishing school and district teams that can work together to put in place multi-tiered supports, identify and address common barriers to attendance, determine and expand successful strategies, and engage the entire community in improving attendance. Given the varied reasons that students might miss school, developing and implementing solutions requires working across silos within schools and forging partnerships across agencies.
  6. Make attendance a year-round priority. While the beginning of school is critical to laying a foundation for the year, it is also essential to continue to pay attention to attendance throughout the remainder of the year. Consider using these calendars to plan activities and events that will keep a focus on improving attendance all year long and create a customized plan for your own community.

Hedy N. Chang Photo Credit: Kathy Sloane