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Ed. Magazine

Um... Where Is Everybody?

Families may be the key to ending chronic absenteeism, a pandemic-era problem that has only gotten worse
Absenteeism illustration
Illustrations: Gary Taxali

While much of the world may have returned to a semblance of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has not: kids in many districts are not showing up for school. 

An “unprecedented wave of chronic absenteeism” across the country has fostered an “attendance crisis,” according to Attendance Works, a nonpro­fit focused on getting children to go to school. Prior to the pandemic, 8 million students were chronically absent — defi­ned as missing more than 10% of the school year — but now that number has doubled. 

“It’s really bad!” exclaims Eyal Bergman, Ed.M.’14, Ed.L.D.’21 , senior vice president of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit focused on ensuring parents have accurate information about students’ academic progress. “And if you’re in high-poverty urban schools, it’s atrocious, it’s really devasting. Kids are just not coming to school.” 

Twenty-eight percent of students across the country were chronically absent during the 2021–22 school year, nearly twice as many as 2018–19, according to The New Yorker, citing data compiled by Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University. Alaska leads with 49% chronic absenteeism in 2021–22, versus 29% pre-pandemic, followed by the District of Columbia (48%), New Mexico (40%), and Michigan, Oregon, Nevada, and Colorado (each with 36%), according to District Administration magazine. In Massachusetts public schools, chronic absenteeism grew by 72% between 2019 and 2023, prompting public service announcements on TV and billboards in which State Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler, Ed.M.’00, urges, “School is where kids belong.” 

Experts have theories on why exactly kids haven’t returned to the classroom after the pandemic. Just as many adult employees are resisting returning to the office instead of working remotely, and for children, school routines were broken and norms and expectations have shifted, suggests Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, who studies strategies to address and improve attendance. 

“I think people grew accustomed to the idea that there will be absences, and they got a lot more lenient,” says Serapha Cruz, founder and principal of the Bronx School of Young Leaders in New York, a Title 1 school where 100% of students are eligible for free lunch. 

Before the pandemic, around 27% of her students were chronically absent, Cruz says. “Believe it or not, 27% chronically absent is pretty good with our population of students,” she says. With a big push on attendance, they were making huge strides, expecting to end the 2019–2020 school year with absenteeism rates in the single digits, “which is practically unheard of in New York,” Cruz says. Then the pandemic hit, and with kids attending class virtually, chronic absenteeism soared to 45%.

“We found that in schools with stronger relationships between teachers and families before the pandemic ... they’re not showing near the declines as everyone else post pandemic.”

Todd Rogers

Today, through a pervasive emphasis in the school culture on attendance, they expect to end this year with pre-pandemic rates. But it’s not easy. For one thing, staff are absent at higher rates than before the pandemic, “so they might not put pressure on the students missing school. We haven’t swung fully back to [the idea] that this isn’t the norm,” Cruz says. 

Numerous studies demonstrate how important it is for kids to be in school; they not only do better academically but are less likely to be held back, drop out of school, or be suspended. Indeed, under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, a large majority of states and the District of Columbia use some measure of chronic absenteeism to evaluate the performance of school districts. “There are one or two exceptions to this rule, but usually kids with attendance problems don’t do well,” says Cruz. 

“There are many reasons why it’s important for children to be in school: for socialization; for best chances for learning; for other supports and opportunities that students get through their school, whether it’s meals or counseling, in addition to what’s happening in the classroom,” says Lindsay Page, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’11, who teaches education policy at Brown University. “I think we should think about the entire social ecosystem of school and how that plays a role in the functioning of families.” 

So, especially post-pandemic, how do you get chronically absent kids to show up?

“Nudge Letters” Work 

Rogers is a numbers guy. A behavioral scientist with a Ph.D. received jointly through Harvard’s Department of Psychology and Harvard Business School, he believes in data. When someone proposes a theory on why a problem exists or whether a solution will help, Rogers insists on rigorous testing using large data sets and randomized controlled trials. 

About 10 years ago, he got involved in the issue of chronic absenteeism. Working with Karen Mapp, Ed.D.’99, a professor of practice at the Ed School and an expert on the importance of school-family engagement, Rogers set out to prove whether chronic absenteeism could be reduced by mailing (via the U.S. postal service) monthly personalized letters to families informing them of how often their child was out of school. He ran multiple largescale, randomized studies involving more than 100,000 families across 12 school districts around the country. 

The results were striking: These socalled “nudge letters” reduced chronic absenteeism by 10–15%. The results were consistent across grade levels and were most effective with students around the threshold for being chronically absent.The letters work best when they are easy-to-read, written in the language spoken in the home, mailed regularly, and inform a family of precisely how many days their child has missed so far that year, as well as how their child compares to others in the school. The tone, Mapp and Rogers say, should be one of partnership with families, rather than scolding, and include useful information on community resources like food banks. Letters, as tangible items, were more effective than texts or emails, the study found. (Texting parents, for example, reduced students’ chronic absenteeism by 2.4–3.6%, according to the American Institutes for Research.)

Why do nudge letters work? Families tend to significantly underestimate how much school their kids have missed, Rogers explains, and they have no idea how their child’s attendance compares to others. (Including the comparison feature was prompted by research showing that people significantly reduce their home energy usage if they receive a mailing comparing their usage to their neighbors.) 

Illustration by Gary Texali

Nudge letters are easy to do across entire districts, and they are one-fiftieth as expensive as the next best proven intervention, which is absence-focused mentors and truancy officers, says Rogers. (For comparison, a new program in 15 districts in Connecticut, in which outreach workers visit homes of chronically absent middle and high schoolers, increased attendance by 15–20% — but cost $24 million.)

But they aren’t a silver bullet. Nudge letters reduce chronic absenteeism by 10–15%, which is “a cost-effective start, but it’s not nearly enough,” says Rogers. 

Still, the results of their research were so significant and consistent that, in 2016, at the request of school districts across the country, Rogers co-founded EveryDay Labs, which mails out nudge letters on behalf of districts. (Rogers describes himself as EveryDay Labs’ chief scientist; his work there is independent of his role at Harvard.) During the pandemic, EveryDay Labs also began overlaying text messages with attendance information and tested to see how much extra these helped. The answer: Not very much. Parents are just too overloaded with text messages, although offering information on food, shelter, transport, and other resources “seems to create value for families and districts,” Rogers says.

Rogers is now considering other proposed interventions for absenteeism in order to devise trials to test their effectiveness. This ongoing work, he says, “was important when we did it 10 years ago and it’s twice as important now because kids are missing twice as many days.”

The (Family) Ties That Bind 

But sending nudge letters is a tactic, not a strategy. And there is a strategy that works incredibly well in fostering and improving student attendance: strong family-school partnerships. In mid-2020, during what Mapp calls the twin pandemics of that year — the murder of George Floyd and COVID-19 — she, Rogers, and Bergman, who was an Ed.L.D. student at the time, set out to answer a question: Would schools with pre-existing strong family engagement better weather the disruptions to education? 

They analyzed data on family engagement from 3,000 schools collected for the 5Essentials Survey in Illinois, and what they found stunned even them: Schools with the strongest family engagement experienced six percentage points less chronic absenteeism post-pandemic than schools with the least family engagement. 

“We were hoping to see something, but we didn’t know what to expect — and we were quite shocked,” Bergman says.

They analyzed data on family engagement from 3,000 schools collected for the 5Essentials Survey in Illinois, and what they found stunned even them: Schools with the strongest family engagement experienced six percentage points less chronic absenteeism post-pandemic than schools with the least family engagement. “We were hoping to see something, but we didn’t know what to expect — and we were quite shocked,” Bergman says. “We found that in schools with stronger relationships between teachers and families before the pandemic, those relationships buffered them so that they’re not showing near the declines [in student attendance] as everyone else post pandemic,” adds Rogers. 

The researchers were so surprised that they ran the numbers multiple times to make sure they were correct. The results were consistent: A school in the 10th percentile for family engagement had a 21% chronic absenteeism rate while a school in the 90th percentile had a rate of only 15% — a six percentage points difference. 

Since schools in high-poverty communities tend to have much higher chronic absenteeism than those in high-income communities, the team also compared the effect of poverty versus family engagement and found it was a half percentage point less influential. “The effect of family engagement [on chronic absenteeism] is as large or larger than poverty,” explains Bergman. And while six percentage points “may not seem like a lot,” he adds, “show me a school that doesn’t want to lower its chronic absenteeism by 6%.” 

For 20 years, Mapp has promoted family engagement as critical to school and student success, including in a 2022 book she co-authored, Everyone Wins!: The Evidence for Family-School Partnerships and Implications for Practice. She also partnered with Bergman and Marissa Alberty, Ed.M.’14, Ed.D.’21, to co-author Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships (Version 2)

The findings on how family engagement affects chronic absenteeism are only the latest support for her work. “For far too long, the effort and time it takes to build partnerships between home and school has been seen as burdensome and unnecessary to the short- and long-term goals of schools,” Mapp says. “This study soundly disrupts that thinking and demonstrates the profound value-add of partnerships between families and educators.” 

Even though family engagement is one of the five essential factors in school success and improvement outlined in the 5Essentials initiative — the others are school leadership, professional capacity, a student- centered learning environment, and instructional guidance — it is often overlooked, even ignored.

“Schools must understand that family and community engagement is as important as the other four,” Mapp told educators in 2023 at “Supporting Success through Authentic and Effective Family Community Engagement,” presented by EdRedesign’s Institute for Success Planning Virtual Learning Series.

“I don’t know if other schools [emphasize attendance] with the same excitement we do. People really want to be at school because it’s a nice place to be. It’s a nice vibe.”

Svati Mariam Lelyveld, Ed.M.'12

Yet most educators receive little if any training on how to build successful partnerships with families and communities. To the contrary, there is a long history of families, particularly those in underserved or marginalized communities, being undervalued by educators, Mapp noted. Most districts put very few resources toward teacher training and other supports in the area of family engagement, although exceptions include Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, Virginia. “It has to be a core element of your plans to improve your schools, not an add-on,” Mapp said in her talk, adding, “It’s real when I see it on your budget sheets.” 

The new research on how family engagement influences student attendance may help turn that around. “Hopefully this data gives school leaders and teachers what they need to make the case internally that family engagement is a worthwhile investment, to promote more professional development around family engagement, and to allow teachers the time they need,” Bergman says. 

Mapp has long argued that family engagement must be woven into the entire culture in a school and school district, with a strong infrastructure supporting family-school partnerships. It’s an approach that should be multifaceted — simply notifying families of a school event, say, isn’t nearly enough — and family engagement must be part of every department from IT to human resources to classrooms, so that “we are not doing things to families, we’re doing things with families,” Mapp said. It is especially important to build trust in communities that have historically been disrespected by educators, she emphasizes. 

“I agree completely,” says Cruz, principal at the Bronx School. “Engagement doesn’t necessarily mean [the parent] coming to school and going to events, but a parent who is really promoting a relationship with the school, like understanding where the student is in terms of their grade, and why they should be in school and promoting that with the child.” 

Mapp, Bergman, and Rogers are now following up their findings with a qualitative analysis. They’ll be talking to teachers, principals, parents, and caregivers that had strong pre-pandemic family engagement and strong post-pandemic outcomes, versus schools with the opposite. “We want to understand the polices, practices, and mindsets that allowed for strong engagement,” Bergman says. After those interviews, they plan to design a new measurement tool “so we can offer recommendations to schools in how to improve their data on family engagement.”

Coming to School Actually Matters 

At the Bronx School, attendance is seen as so important to student success that it’s emphasized and supported in myriad ways. There are rewards for perfect attendance and improved attendance, and contests between classes where the prizes include trips to amusement parks or gaming chairs. Each morning, guidance counselors visit the homeroom classes to share a positive a­rmation and remind students of the importance of coming to school ready to get to work. Incentives are both non-academic, like the prizes, but also academic, in that attendance leads to better grades, and good or improved grades are recognized with prizes as well. Rogers did a study that showed that mailing students a certificate for good attendance that they weren’t expecting actually disincentivizes going to class, because kids interpret it as saying that regular attendance is unusual. But the Bronx School puts coming to class as something everyone does and is recognized for. 

“I don’t know if other schools [emphasize attendance] with the same excitement we do,” says Svati Mariam Lelyveld, Ed.M.’12, who has been teaching eighth grade at the Bronx School of Young Leaders since 2012. Despite budget cuts that mean a broken PA system and classroom clocks that are stuck at 12, “people really want to be at school because it’s a nice place to be. It’s a nice vibe.” 

But there’s a big difference, Cruz notes, between kids who miss a day of school occasionally for a doctor’s appointment or a cold and those who are chronically absent. “With chronically absent students you have to get to know on an individual basis why they are missing school. Almost always it’s something not related to the child but to the whole family,” she says. It might range from a student who is staying home to care for younger sibling while the parents are working, to a student who has serious trauma or other psychological issues that need professional intervention. Cruz and her staff work with these kids to understand their particular circumstances and try to solve them. 

A few years ago, Lelyveld had a student who lived across the street from the school but rarely attended. A guidance counselor began picking the girl up every day, knocking on her door at 7:30 in the morning, which made an impression on the family. “That really incentivized them to get her up and out,” Lelyveld says. Once the girl’s attendance was consistent, her achievement improved significantly. 

Regular, “asset-based” communication, where families are supported and respected as partners, is a key part of family engagement, Mapp, Rogers, and others say. Although regular communications with families by themselves are not enough, if offered in a culturally sensitive way — recognizing that families are competent partners with schools — they are one way to start to build respectful relationships.

“We reached out to families on a regular basis to check in with them particularly when their child was absent, never in a punitive way but instead with a supportive tone with the goal of supporting the family.”

Lindsay Page, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’11

These communications should be “extremely partner-focused,” says Rogers, written in what Mapp calls “asset-based language” instead of pointing a finger of blame. “A lot of the ways that schools think about families is through a deficit lens,” he says. “Solutions are often about circumventing families instead of treating them as partners or even recognizing that they are the experts in their kids and want their kids to thrive.” 

“Texting, we know, is a best practice” with regard to contacting parents about something specific, says Bergman. “Parents prefer it usually, so it’s an easier way to get to people.” But he emphasizes that people respond faster to texts from someone with whom they already have a relationship and may not respond at all to texts from someone they don’t really know. Again, that’s why building a strong, respectful relationship with families is key. 

A few years ago, Page, working with an AmeriCorps volunteer and others, created a pilot program at two kindergarten classes in Pittsburgh that sent a weekly text message to parents. 

The texts were sometimes a general reminder of how important attendance is, or a specific message notifying them that the school noted their child was absent that day, or an informational message about community resources. Over time, families began responding, explaining, for example, why their child was out. In one case, the family’s text noted that their child had no clean clothes for school because the washing machine was broken. The AmeriCorps volunteer, who was bilingual in Spanish — many families in the area spoke Spanish as a first language — connected the family with a community group that provided a new washing machine. And the volunteer helped other families overcome obstacles keeping a child from school. 

“We reached out to families on a regular basis to check in with them particularly when their child was absent, never in a punitive way but instead with a supportive tone with the goal of supporting the family,” Page explains. 

The result? The rate of chronic absence among the kindergarteners fell from 30% to 13%. 

Page believes other schools could replicate these results at a reasonably low cost, especially with an AmeriCorps or other volunteer organization involved. “Absolutely, there are interventions that can work” in getting kids to school, says Page, who was also involved in a 2022 brief for EdResearch for Recovery, “District Strategies to Reduce Student Absenteeism,” which emphasized providing timely information to parents about their child’s absences, making sure students have safe and reliable transportation to school, and other home visits to foster stronger family-school connections.

“One thing I think is an issue for some students with their attendance is having clean clothes to wear to school or weather-appropriate clothes,” agrees Lelyveld. Teachers have pooled their resources to buy a warm sweater or sweatpants for a child, and the school connects families with local centers that provide food and clothes. 

Overall, the point is that strong partnerships between schools and families are essential to education. Indeed, family engagement is so influential in student success — including reducing chronic absenteeism — that Bergman is excited to promote the study’s findings, including in webinars offered by the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement. 

“In a world of really bad news, this is a good news story,” says Bergman. “This is something schools can do.” 

Elaine McArdle is a writer based in New York. Her last piece for Ed. focused on librarians and book bans

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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