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Combatting Chronic Absenteeism with Family Engagement 

As post-COVID absenteeism rates continue unabated, a look at how strong family-school engagement can help
Illustration of parents bringing children to school

Family engagement plays a pivotal role in combating chronic absenteeism, says Eyal Bergman, Ed.L.D.’21, senior vice president at Learning Heroes.

The number of students who are chronically absent — missing 10% or more of the school year — has skyrocketed since the pandemic. Bergman studied this issue and was surprised to discover how schools with robust family engagement had significantly lower rates of chronic absenteeism. “It shows that the strength of a school's family engagement is actually more predictive of a school's chronic absenteeism than their rates of poverty,” he says.

But fostering strong home-school partnerships has been a challenge for many school districts. “What we find is that schools often, despite really good intentions, have not really been designed to promote really strong partnerships with families,” he says. “This is why families are often treated as spectators to the work of schools. This is why their cultural wisdom and their expertise about their children aren't necessarily woven into the fabric of schooling. It's why we see that schools often apply assimilationist practices.”

Bergman emphasizes the need for trust-building between educators and families, personalized approaches to student learning, and systemic infrastructural support to enhance family engagement. In future work, Bergman will dig deeper into the data and try to gather more information about what certain school districts with strong family engagement did to keep chronic absenteeism down and a possible tool down the line to help schools with family engagement.

In this episode, he explains the soaring numbers of chronic absenteeism while underscoring the transformative potential of prioritizing family engagement in ensuring student well-being and academic success.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Eyal Bergman believes strong family engagement may counteract schools' growing problem with chronic absenteeism. Nearly 16 million students missed more than 10% of the 2022 school year — that's double pre-pandemic levels.

Bergman leads research on the impact of family engagement in schools. When he set out to study family engagement during the pandemic, he was surprised to see just how much better schools with pre-existing strong family engagement fared on attendance. Many schools struggle to develop strong family engagement, despite its well-known benefits and even funding available to help. I wanted to hear more about the challenges associated with chronic absenteeism and the role of family engagement. First, I asked how the pandemic impacted chronic absenteeism.

Eyal Bergman

EYAL BERGMAN: If you compare chronic absenteeism numbers from pre-pandemic, from 2019, '18-'19, to '21-'22, which is the first full year once kids were fully back in school, it doubled. And we have about 15 million children that were chronically absent in the '21-'22 school year. And they're all over the country. So you have a little over 5 million kids in cities, about 5 million kids in suburbs. You've got about 4 million kids that live in rural or small towns. It's really everywhere. But it's especially important to note that it's especially pronounced in high-poverty communities.

So when you look at high poverty communities pre-pandemic, about 25% of schools were in what's called extreme chronic absenteeism. That's where 30% or more of students are chronically absent.


EYAL BERGMAN: So you've got 25% of schools in high-poverty communities that were chronically absent pre-pandemic, and that number shot up to 69%.


EYAL BERGMAN: So nearly 7 in 10 schools in high-poverty communities are beset by extreme levels of chronic absence. It is a tremendous problem. Now, some of those numbers have started to come down, but only slightly. So '21-'22, we're currently two years removed from some of that data. And some states have released their data from this past school year, from the '22-'23 school year, but most of the states that have released data have had their numbers come down less than five percentage points. Some states have actually gone up. So we're really in, still, a very elevated level of chronic absence across the country.

JILL ANDERSON: Do we know a lot about why this is happening post-pandemic, or is it still kind of we need to figure it out?

EYAL BERGMAN: Well, there's a lot of different factors explaining why kids come or don't come to school. I think there's been changing norms.


EYAL BERGMAN: It's important to remember that chronic absence takes into account excused and unexcused absences. So norms around-- it used to be that a kid had sniffles, and they would still come to school. A lot of families have decided just to not send their kids to school at that point.

But I think also, norms have changed in schools around kids wanting to stay home, families choosing to send their kids home. And I think the way it relates to our study, and the work that we look at, and the relationship between home and school, is that it shows that in communities that have strong relationships with families, they can have real talk about how important it is to come to school regularly, what interventions can be placed that are mutually supported at home and at school, such that kids feel more welcomed in school, such that kids feel like school is an everyday experience and families feel that way too. I think it's helpful to see attendance as like a vital sign of a school's health. And the more that students and teachers and parents and all the community members are wrapping themselves around kids to really stress the importance and help them feel welcomed and safe and supported in schools, the more likely kids are to show up to school every day.

JILL ANDERSON: You set out to study this issue. Tell me a little bit about what you discovered-- why some schools were faring better than others?

EYAL BERGMAN: Let me give you a little bit of an explanation about where the data comes from, to give some context, and a little bit about where the study came from. Because Dr. Karen Mapp is a mentor of mine and was my advisor when the pandemic hit. And we were talking a lot about, surely, the pandemic would be a very useful time to study the impact of family engagement.

Because the hypothesis for this study was born in those first few months. We were hearing all sorts of anecdotal evidence in the spring of 2020, when schools were shuttered, that the schools that had strong relationships with families were going to be a little bit better equipped to withstand the disruptions in schooling. So that was the hypothesis that was set out. And Dr. Mapp was able to join on a Learning Heroes webinar. And in that webinar, where we are talking about this, it piqued the interest of some funders that were on the webinar. And so we were able to start to get some initial funding to be able to set out and conduct this study.

And as a part of the initial landscape assessment of preparing to conduct that study, we interviewed about 20 family engagement scholars, experts in the field. And one of the things that we learned from that landscape assessment is that there is really one really predominant data source for a large quantitative sample. And that is the Five Essentials, which is administered statewide in Illinois. It was designed by the University of Chicago.

If folks are familiar with Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider's landmark study, "Trust In Schools," this found that the presence of trust in schools was highly predictive of whether schools would improve over time. And so this data has been-- is a very high teacher response rate, so it's very reliable and valid. And it measures the five essentials of school improvement, like classroom culture, principal efficacy, teacher efficacy-- a number of key essentials. And one of those is family-community ties.

And so there are over 3,000 schools in Illinois that respond to this survey every year. That doesn't really exist in many other places. And so it's a really important and rich data set. And so it dates back. 

So that is the data that we used. And there is a lot of publicly-available data on achievement levels, and poverty rates, and a bunch of community and school characteristics that allow us to do statistical modeling. And so we're able to control for a lot of variables.

The way I like to think about statistics is that there's a lot of factors that contribute to chronic absenteeism. And what the stats allow us to do is start to tease apart, like, how big are the different pieces of the pie, right? For all intents and purposes, if you take two schools, and you say they had the same achievement levels, the same chronic absenteeism levels in 2018-2019, they have the same poverty rates, they're the same type of schools-- so you're not comparing high school to elementary school-- and so for all intents and purposes, these schools are essentially the same except for that one school scored in the 10th percentile of the Five Essentials family engagement metric, and the other school scored in the 90th percentile. So you're comparing two schools where one school performed very low, and one school performed very high. What this allows us to say is that the family engagement score accounts for a 39% difference in their chronic absenteeism rates. So that's tremendous. That 39% accounts for 6.2 percentage points on their chronic absenteeism score.

So those are real numbers. In a school of 500 kids, 6% of kids is 31 kids that are not chronically absent. In a school of 1,000 kids, that's 62 kids. That's multiple classrooms. That could be a whole grade level. So these are real numbers, and that's the most important finding from the study.

JILL ANDERSON: Were you surprised, though, to see this huge—


JILL ANDERSON: --number, this huge difference?

EYAL BERGMAN: We had to run the numbers multiple times to make sure that we were seeing the right thing. And we sent it out to external reviewers to make sure that we weren't missing something critical. We're like, this is pretty significant. There's also other findings where it shows that the strength of a school's family engagement is actually more predictive of a school's chronic absenteeism than their rates of poverty.


EYAL BERGMAN: We found that the strength of a school's family engagement was twice as predictive post-pandemic as it was pre-pandemic. So that 6.2 number is cut in half in pre-pandemic. In other words, we knew family engagement mattered before, but it really mattered in the pandemic. And considering that our levels are still pretty close, they're much closer to what they were in '21-'22 now than what they were pre-pandemic. So the importance of family engagement, to me, seems like it's here to stay if you're talking about addressing chronic absenteeism.

JILL ANDERSON: So it says that there was 6% less chronic absenteeism post-pandemic in schools with strong family engagement versus weak family engagement. I'm just going to ask you again if you can put that number into some kind of context, because I worry that people might hear that and think, 6% is really such a small number.


JILL ANDERSON: It doesn't seem that dramatic, but it is.

EYAL BERGMAN: If you work in a school-- I imagine a lot of your listeners work in schools-- show me a school that doesn't want to lower its chronic absenteeism by 6 percentage points right now. And if you want to talk about real kids, like I said, in a school of 500 kids-- that's a normal-sized elementary school. That's an average-sized school in Illinois-- that's 31 children that are not chronically absent. In a school of 1,000, that's 62.

In terms of attendance, it's 800 fewer student absences in a year in a school of 500. And I'll put it in financial terms, too. In my state-- I live in California-- a lot of states like ours get their school funding based on something called average daily attendance. In other words, the days that students come to school is how schools actually get their funding.

So when I used to work in a school district here in California, our Attendance Office was located in Fiscal Services, just to give you a sense of where we situate the relative importance of attendance. So in a school of 500, that 6 percentage point equates to $45,000. A school of 1,000-- there's lots of schools with 1,000 kids-- that's $90,000 of your operating budget.

JILL ANDERSON: So it's not a case of just the value, of course, of getting kids into the school so that they can learn. It has significant funding repercussions.

EYAL BERGMAN: It has significant funding repercussions. And I also just think that anybody who's been a teacher understands that you can't do all the work that you want to do if your kids aren't in school. There's this saying that I don't necessarily love. It's like, they can't learn if they're not here.

I mean, I think kids learn wherever they are. Like, my kids learn at home. Our kids learn in the community. But the skills we want to impart on kids, the social development and the academic development we want to impart on kids, school offers an important sense of consistency for kids. And if they're not coming to school, then they can't get the benefits of everything we're trying to do in school.

JILL ANDERSON: Would you say that the majority of schools in the US have weak family engagement?

EYAL BERGMAN: I'll put it this way. So Dr. Karen Mapp and I wrote a piece that was published in June of 2021. We really started thinking about it and writing it in the summer of 2020 amidst the renewed reckoning of racial injustice in America in the wake of George Floyd's murder and schools grappling with how to respond, how to think about themselves as service providers in communities-- particularly in communities of color-- but also the ravages of the pandemic upon low income and communities of color.

These dual pandemics just reveal a lot about the historical relationships between home and school in America. And what we find is that schools often, despite really good intentions, have not really been designed to promote really strong partnerships with families. This is why families are often treated as spectators to the work of schools. This is why their cultural wisdom and their expertise about their children aren't necessarily woven into the fabric of schooling. It's why we see that schools often apply assimilationist practices.

What do I mean by that? When you look at how most schools and systems allocate their funding for family engagement, it's usually things like parent liaisons. They hire parent liaisons who are from the community-- oftentimes in immigrant communities that speak the language and that are from that culture and that community-- and things like parent universities or training programs for parents. None of that is wrong. In many cases, that comes from requests from parents and from the communities themselves.

So the point there is that that's not wrong, but that it's incomplete. Because as a strategy, what it says is, in order to resolve this gulf between home and school, we need parents to come closer to the school.


EYAL BERGMAN: So we need to have staff explain things to parents so that they understand things and so that they are better equipped to support their kids. But there isn't very much in the way of strategy design or funding to help staff get to understand and know the communities better to build the staffing capacity for stronger and richer community engagement.

I mean, when I say that schools haven't really been designed for comprehensive engagement, I think you can look at most schools, like, teachers will tell you they don't really have the time to build relationships with families and to collaborate really richly with them. That is a product of design. What do we have time to do?


EYAL BERGMAN: It's A question of where our priorities are. When you look at most pre-service training programs in America, teachers do not receive training in their pre-service programs for building relationships with families and collaborating with them so that they can actually work in strong partnership, even though we know from research-- and it just makes intuitive sense, too-- if you're a parent, if you're a teacher, you know that if parents and teachers are actually talking to one another, if they're looking at data, if they're on the same page, then it feels like one of you is playing offense—

Like on a football team, the offensive players don't play defense, and the defensive players don't play offense. But they're both doing their part to help the team win. So you can imagine that the teachers doing their part in the classroom, the parents doing their part at home, if they're in strong partnership with each other, that actually really helps kids.

And this is what the research bears out. But the systems are not designed to promote that type of activity and behavior. That's why teachers don't have the time. That's why teachers aren't trained. That's why there's not much PD in the way of helping teachers improve in this work.

There are tools and tactics like apps that can be helpful, or text message opt-out, opt-in methods where parents get notified. There are important technical things that can be done, and that does help. That helps a little bit. But the fundamental questions of why parents and teachers don't have the time or the dispositions to be able to really build strong relationships, that's at the core of the nature of the challenge: What makes one school strong in family engagement versus another?

I can give examples from two pieces. One is the piece that Dr. Mapp and I wrote. It's called, "Embracing a New Normal, Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement." We have a nice case study in there. And then, there's another piece that I wrote a few years ago called, "Unlocking the How, Designing Family Engagement Strategies that Lead to School Success." And that has about a dozen examples from across the country.

And in that piece, I sort of break down three basic pillars of what constitutes strong engagement. And all of this is rooted, of course, in the dual capacity-building framework for family school partnerships. That's Dr. Mapp's framework. And in that framework, which we borrow from the Three Pillars, the first pillar is the indisputable importance of trust-building.


EYAL BERGMAN: A lot of times, what I see is events, activities in schools where we invite parents to come in and do things, or we send out communications to parents. Those are the most common things. But if you're not building trust between teachers and parents, you're not going to see really strong engagement. 

And so schools that really excel, they do things even with the resources at their disposal. Like, make Back to School Night less about all the things that I want to do this year with your kids in my classroom, and more like, let me get to know you a little bit. There are schools where the teachers just walk around and they have parents introduce themselves to each other, to their parents. They open the floor. They just ask questions. 

You just build a relationship with another person. Schooling is fundamentally a human enterprise. So we get to know people for who they are and what they care about. You start by building relationships.

So some schools do home visits. To me, that's really powerful for teachers because it helps them conceptualize, like, what did I think about the kids and families that I've visited, and what did I actually observe in the home? And very often, it can start a conversation about some biases I thought-- I think I might have had about families.

Home visits are wonderful. Even if you don't do home visits, you can do like community visits. And one thing that I loved was just trust visits.

So the parents come to the school, but the point of the visit at the start of the year is just like, let's build a relationship. Let's get to know each other. At this one school that we featured in "Embracing a New Normal," they do welcoming meetings at the beginning of the year. 30 minutes, teachers meet with their students' parents for 30 minutes at the start of the year. That time is set aside by the schools.

In secondary schools, if I'm a math teacher in a high school, I can't meet with 150 parents at the start of the year. But oftentimes, there's advisories, or Zero Period. And so there are ways to chunk it out so that everybody does their part with just a few students. So that's one thing.

The second pillar is, this is all about student learning and well-being. I think a lot of times, what we see is that family engagement activities are more like feel-good. And that's not bad. In many cases, it can be really important for building a relationship.

But at the end of the day, we're all here for kids. And so family engagement is a means to an end. It's not an end in and of itself. The purpose should be, let's make sure we all have an accurate picture of how our children are performing in school.

So the organization that I work at, Learning Heroes, we do, practically every year, a national poll of parents and teachers and principals. The last data we have is from late in 2023, where we did a poll with Gallup. And again, we found that about 90% of parents in America think that their kids are at or above grade level in reading and in math.

Educators have one perspective. Families have a very different perspective.


EYAL BERGMAN: Families, for the most part, think that their kids are doing fine until they hear from the school that there was a problem.


EYAL BERGMAN: Well, also, more than 80% of parents in America report that their kids get A's and B's, or B's and higher, on their schools. So the primary method that families receive to let them know how their children are performing are report card grades. And report card grades have their benefit, but they're also deeply flawed. They're more of a reflection of effort and assignment completion than they are grade-level mastery-- or they can be-- and they're highly subjective.

So families have a distorted view of how their kids are doing in school. That has to change. And the best way to do that is to get on the same page, review data, make plans together, get together on a regular basis. 

So there are schools, plenty of schools, that have a fall conference where they review data, and they make a plan. And then, they meet again in the winter to review how that's going and adjust as necessary, and then get together in the spring to review progress and make a summer plan. So let's focus on student learning and well-being. The pillar is to anchor in student learning and well-being.

And then, the third pillar is to build an infrastructure, because you have to build a scaffold for this to actually function in schools and systems. Like, you can't just lop on a good idea on a system that isn't prepared to manage it or lead it. So there are some school districts, for instance, that have senior, cabinet-level leaders for family engagement.

In many places, the leader for family engagement at the district is nowhere near the senior-level leadership. And so that limits the ability of family engagement to be on the agenda and to be integrated into these systemic strategies of the district. So I'll give you two examples.

In Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland, Baltimore City Public Schools, you've got a senior-level family engagement lead. And so what they did coming out of the pandemic is that the Chief for Engagement and the Chief Academic Officer were able to work together on a Pandemic Recovery Plan that included student learning plans for every student that were co-designed by the teacher, by the student, and by the parent. And you know, any new policy in a large system is going to take some time. It's going to take its lumps. It's going to need to evolve and adjust. But now, they're getting to the point where it's becoming common practice that teachers are supposed to-- or at least expected to-- work closely with parents in order to build those student learning plans.

In Richmond, Virginia, you have a Chief Engagement Officer that was able to reframe attendance as an engagement challenge and redeploy resources. She has a whole dashboard where schools are able to input and track all of the efforts that they do to engage families directly on attendance. And she's able to see that, and she's able to help schools improve. And so now, they're like slowly-- like they've gotten much better attendance outcomes because they have a whole system-wide strategy to address it from the engagement perspective.

So you have senior-level leadership. You have PD time allocated. You have actual time in the teachers' calendars so that they can build a relationship. And you help them build the skills, and get over fears, and be able to feel comfortable and confident and collaborate with one another so that they can start to have more robust engagement strategies in the school that actually lead to improvements for kids.

JILL ANDERSON: We all know that changing the system takes time, but I'm wondering, are there any low-hanging fruits that exist for family engagement that a school district should definitely be doing-- should start as soon as possible if they're not currently doing them?

EYAL BERGMAN: Look, I think at the very least, we should be calling parents and telling them, ‘Hey, I'm going to be your child's teacher this year. I'm really excited to have them in school. I would love to hear a little bit about how last school year went for you, and what you're looking forward to this year.’ And let's have the mindset that we're going to treat parents as humans and then actively reach out to the other side. 

There's a lot of barriers for parents to come up to the school, and it's not just that they're working two or three jobs. It's that school feels like a foreign place to them. It's that they're speaking to an authority. They're speaking to folks that they haven't necessarily had good experiences within their own lives. They may be coming with their own traumas.

So at the very basic, what we should be doing is taking it upon ourselves to reach out to parents. That's the most effective low-hanging fruit, is to reach out, build relationship on the front end. Any teacher will tell you that when you build a relationship with a family on the front end, it more than pays dividends throughout the year.

And so principals, what they can do is they can turn over a whole staff meeting and say, OK, instead of 60 minutes of us talking or me talking at you, I want you to call five parents and tell them how excited you are. And then, bring in PD, and build from there. There's plenty of apps that are helpful, also, for communication, but let's not assume that those apps that are for communication are going to necessarily build trust. We need to do one-on-one trust-building.

JILL ANDERSON: Eyal Bergman is the Senior Vice President at Learning Heroes. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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