Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent of school days in a year, is one of biggest barriers to school success — one that a variety of states are targeting in their accountability plans under ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act). It’s an issue for children as young as kindergarten and first grade, whose poor attendance can hurt academic performance and set a pattern for years to come.
Parents can be powerful allies in preventing the problem and creating solutions. New research supports that idea, finding that simple, low-cost strategies to target parental beliefs about attendance can reduce student absences and pave the way for academic success.
Two recent studies have explored whether sending messages about attendance to parents could affect their children’s attendance.
One study, conducted by education policy researchers Carly D. Robinson and Monica G. Lee and psychologists Eric Dearing and Todd Rogers, looked at whether personalized mailings could reduce the absences specifically of young children with poor attendance.
Hypothesizing that many parents do not fully comprehend the consequences of missing school, the researchers mailed home messages such as “attendance in early grades affects student learning” and “absences result in missed opportunities that cannot be replaced.” Because parents tend to underestimate the number of school days their child has missed, the mailings also reported how many days that child had been absent.
More than 6,500 households in California across 10 school districts received these mailings six times in a school year (and an additional 4,400 households in a control group received only regular school outreach). Households received the messages if they had a child in kindergarten, or a child in first through fifth grade with less than average attendance the previous year. Eighteen percent of students were socioeconomically disadvantaged and 63 percent were non-white.
Another larger-scale study, conducted by Rogers and policy analyst Avi Feller, sent similar mailings in Philadelphia to more than 28,000 households. These mailings, which either reminded parents of the importance of attendance, additionally stated the child’s total absences, or further compared those absences to the child’s classmates’, went out to students in every grade and with any attendance record. Seventy-three percent of students were black or Latino, and 74 percent qualified for reduced or free lunch.
These low-cost, simple interventions had strong results.
In the first study, students whose families received the mailings missed 8 percent fewer school days that students in the control group (students receiving mailings were absent an average of 6.37 days, as opposed to 6.9 days).
Even more promising, the mailings were most effective for students with the lowest attendance. The mailings corresponded with a 15 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, compared with the control group.
In the second study, over the course of the year, students whose parents received both reminders about the importance of attendance and information about the number of days they had missed were absent only 16 days on average, as opposed to 17 days on average in the control group.
In both cities, the mailings were inexpensive — between $4 and $7 per additional day of attendance generated.
As school leaders look for ways to reduce chronic absenteeism, these studies provide some valuable insight.
Previous effective interventions have on relied social workers and mentors to support absent students — work that can cost more than twenty times as much as these mailings. Of course, specialists provide invaluable support for families dealing with poverty and other complex circumstances. But mailing reminders, says Rogers, an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, can be “a first-tier intervention that complements more intensive and expensive systemic interventions.”
The emphasis on elementary school absences is also key. Other attendance interventions haven’t focused on young children, “despite the well-documented association between K-5 attendance and negative student outcomes,” says Robinson, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. By targeting chronic absenteeism from a young age, schools can set the standard that attendance is vital for success.
The studies further support the notion that any form of messaging with parents — backpack reminders, text messages, in-person dialogue — can help all families feel more connected to school and to their students’ success.
Finally, says Rogers, these studies add to a body of work that “empowers families to support student success.” Too often, schools instead view families as contributing to student failure — especially in low-income and urban settings, where students are absent at triple the average rate.
“Educators who take an asset-based view of families recognize that families are valuable partners in the quest to improve student success,” says Robinson. “This intervention builds on that framework, and invites parents to engage in their child's education in a way that is concrete and achievable: help get your kid to school more.”
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