8 Strategies to Tackle Chronic Absenteeism

Keep Students in School for Academic Success

 In an announcement on the United States Department of Education website  in October 2015, more attention is now being paid to chronic absenteeism in our nation's schools. The announcement, titled Every Student, Every Day: Obama Administration Launches First-ever National, Cross-Sector Initiative to Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism in Our Nation's Schools is being led by a combined team that includes the White House, U.S. Departments of Education (ED), Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Justice (DOJ).  

This announcement outlined a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism by at least 10 percent each year, beginning in the 2015-16 school year.  The announcement included the following statistics on how absences from school over time have a negative impact on a student's academic future:

  • Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read on grade level by the third grade.
  • Students who can't read at grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • By high school, regular attendance is a better dropout indicator than test scores.
  • A student who is chronically absent in any year between the eighth and twelfth grade is seven times more likely to drop out of school.

So, how to combat chronic absenteeism? Here are eight (8) suggestions.

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Collect Data on Absenteeism

Collecting data is critical in evaluating student attendance. 

In collecting data, school districts need to develop a standardized attendance taxonomy, or scheme of classification. That taxonomy will allow for comparable data which will allow for comparisons between schools. 

These comparisons will help educators identify the relationship between student attendance and student achievement. Using data for other comparisons will also help identify how attendance impacts promotion from grade to grade and high school graduation.

An important step to reducing absences is understanding the depth and scope of the problem in the school, in the district, and in  the community. 

School and community leaders can work together as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro stated,

"...empower educators and communities to close the opportunity gap facing our most vulnerable children and ensure there's a student at every school desk, every day."

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Define Terms for Data Collection

Before collecting data, school district leaders must make sure that their data taxonomy that allows schools to code student attendance accurately is in compliance with local and state guidelines. The code terms created for student attendance must be used consistently. For example, code terms can be created that allow for data entry that distinguishes between “attending" or "present” and “not attending" or "absent.”

Decisions on attendance data entry for a specific time period is a factor in creating code terms because attendance status at one time during the day, may differ from attendance during each class period. There may be a code terms for attendance during some portion of the school day (for example, absent for doctor’s appointment in the morning but present in the afternoon). 

 States and school districts may vary in how they convert attendance data into decisions about what constitutes tardiness. There may be differences in what comprises chronic absenteeism, or data entry personnel may make immediate decisions for unusual attendance situations.

A good coding system is necessary to confirm and document students’ attendance status in order to ensure acceptable data quality. 

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Be Public about Chronic Attendance

There are a number of websites that can help school districts to launch a public awareness campaign to convey the important message that every day counts:

Absences Add Up

Attendance Works

School Turnaround Support

Report: "The Importance of Being in School"-Get Schooled




Families in Schools

 Speeches, proclamations and billboards can reinforce the message of daily attendance in school to parents and children.Public service messages can be released. Social media can be utilized

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Communicate with Parents about Chronic Absenteeism

Parents are on the front line of the attendance battle and it is important to communicate your school’s progress toward your attendance goal to students and families, and celebrate successes throughout the year.

Many parents do not know about the negative effects of too many student absences, especially in the early grades. Make it easy for them to access data and find resources that will help them improve their children’s attendance.

The messaging to parents of middle and secondary school students can be given using an economic lens. School is their child's first and most important job, and that students are learning about more than math and reading. They are learning how show up for school on time every day, so that when they graduate and get a job, they will know how to show up for work on time every day.

Share with parents the research that a student who misses 10 days or more during a school year is 20 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 25 percent less likely to ever enroll in college.

Share with parents the cost of chronic absenteeism as leading to dropping out from school. Provide the research that shows that a high school graduate makes, on average, $1 million more than a dropout over a lifetime.

Remind parents that school only gets harder , particularly for middle and high school students, when students stay home too much. 

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Bring Community Stakeholders Together

Student attendance is critical to progress in schools, and ultimately, progress in a community. All stakeholders should be enlisted to ensure that it becomes a priority across the community.

These stakeholders can create a task force or committee comprised of leadership from school and community agencies. There may be members from early childhood, K-12 education, family engagement, social services, public safety, after school, faith-based, philanthropy, public housing and transportation.

School and community transportation department should ensure that students and parents can get to school safely. Community leaders can adjust bus lines for students who use public transit, and work with police and community groups to develop safe routes to schools.

Request volunteer adults to mentor chronically absent students. These mentors can help monitor attendance, reach out to families and make sure students are showing up.

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Consider Chronic Absenteeism Impact on Community and School Budgets

Each state has developed  attendance-based school funding formulas. School districts with low attendance rates may not receive 

Chronic absence data can be used to shape school and community annual budget priorities. A school with high chronic absence rates may be one of the signs that a  community is in distress.

The effective use of the data on chronic absenteeism can help community leaders better decide where to invest in child care, early education and after school programs. These support services may be necessary can to help bring absenteeism under control. 

Districts and schools depend on accurate attendance data for a number of other reasons as well: staffing,instruction, support services, and resources.

The use of data as evidence of reduced chronic absence may also better identify which programs should continue to receive financial support in tight budget times. 

School attendance has real economic costs for school districts, but the cost of chronic absence  is felt in the loss of future opportunities for students who, after early disengagement from school, eventually drop out of school.

High school dropouts are also two and a half times more likely to be on welfare than their peers who graduated, according to the 1996 Manual to Combat Truancy published by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education.

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Reward Attendance

School and community leaders can recognize and appreciate good and improved attendance. Incentives provide a positive consequence and can be material (such as gift cards) or experiences. These incentives and rewards should be carefully thought out:

  • Rewards need consistent implementation; 
  • Rewards should have with wide appeal to students
  • Include families incentives;
  • Low cost Incentives work (homework pass, a special activity)
  • Competition (between grades/classes/schools) can be used as an incentive;
  • Recognize good and improved attendance, not just perfect attendance
  • Timeliness, not just showing, is also important. 
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Ensure Proper Health Care

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has commissioned studies that connect access to health care to student absenteeism. 

"There are studies that demonstrate that when children’s basic nutritional and fitness needs are met, they attain higher achievement levels.Similarly, the use of school-based and school linked health centers ensuring access to needed physical, mental, and oral health care improves attendance, behavior, and achievement."

The CDC encourages schools to partner with public agencies to address student health concerns. 

Research also shows that asthma and dental problems are leading causes of chronic absence in many cities. Communities are encouraged to use state and local health departments to be pro-active in trying to provide preventative care for targeted students

Attendance Works

Attendance Works has developed a Toolkit for City Leaders, case studies of communities making a difference and data tools available on our website at www.attendanceworks.org