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Causes and consequences of student absenteeism: An interview with Michael Gottfried and Ethan Hutt

If you have been following education policy over the last few years, you probably have noticed the term “chronic absenteeism” appearing more and more. Chronic absenteeism refers to the number of students missing more than a set number or percentage of school days per year. In February, the North Carolina State Board of Education adopted a state definition of a chronically absent student as “a student who is enrolled in a North Carolina public school for at least 10 school days at any time during the school year, and whose total number of absences is equal to or greater than 10 percent of the total number of days that such student has been enrolled at such school during such school year.”

Chronic absenteeism has become so popular lately in part because of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed by former President Obama in 2015. ESSA gives states more flexibility to create their own school accountability systems. Many states are taking advantage of this flexibility by adding indicators like access to and success on AP and IB courses to their accountability systems. According to a recent review of states’ ESSA plans, chronic absenteeism is the most commonly selected indicator in states’ proposed accountability systems under ESSA.

This week, NC State College of Education’s Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis Program hosted four nationally-renowned scholars for a panel on the causes, consequences, and correlates of student absenteeism. After the panel, I interviewed two of the scholars, Michael Gottfried and Ethan Hutt. Gottfried is an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara and studies absenteeism from an economist perspective. Hutt is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and studies the history of school measurement indicators, including absenteeism. Both are co-editors of a book on chronic absenteeism coming out in the next year. The following key themes emerged during the interview.

Missing any day of school is harmful for kids

Gottfried and Hutt cautioned against putting too much emphasis on a specific threshold definition for chronically absent students. Both stated there is no research that shows a meaningful drop-off in student achievement after missing 10 percent of days as compared to missing 9.9 percent of days, for example. In other words, the relationship between missing school and student achievement is not asymptotic.

What they did emphasize is that missing any day of school results in a loss of learning for all students. “Every day you miss school impacts achievement,” Gottfried stated. “The first day [missed] matters as much as the 15th day [missed].”

Additionally, the effect of missing school for high-achieving and low-achieving students is essentially the same, according to research by Professor Seth Christenson. Hutt added, “Sometimes we think, ‘Oh, he’s a smart kid, he’ll catch up.’ Missing a day of school means you’re missing a day of learning. That is true across the board regardless of whether you’re a good student or a bad student. “

Through his own research, Gottfried found the days that matter most for student performance as measured by a state exam are the three days leading up to that exam: “Kids missing school during the build up to those exams have the worst outcomes.”

Districts and schools need to better understand why students miss school

National research has identified common reasons students miss school, but those reasons can be very different in different communities. For districts and schools to understand how to reduce chronic absenteeism, they need to understand why students in their communities are missing school — something Hutt believes few districts truly know.

“What I would encourage districts to do — it sounds so simple to say, but a lot of districts don’t actually know the answer to this — is find out why students are missing school and really investigate. I think there are reasons that students miss school that are within the control of districts to solve…There are a bunch of reasons that students may miss school that are just simply beyond the control of the school. The problem is we don’t necessarily know which is which.”

Chronic absenteeism is a community-wide problem requiring community-wide solutions

Part of the reason why accurately identifying why students miss school in any given school or district is so important is to allow schools to understand what issues they can control and where they need help from the larger community. For example, one of the main reasons cited in many studies for why students miss school is transportation. Districts can solve that issue by ensuring all students have access to a school bus or running a late bus for students who miss the first one and have no other means of transportation.

However, students also miss school because of health issues and illnesses. This is an area where schools can partner with healthcare providers and public health organizations to reduce absences due to health reasons. Some schools now have health clinics, mobile clinics, or mobile dental buses that provide healthcare to students at school.

Hutt argued, “Attendance is an area where schools can reasonably ask their community to do a better job in helping them. [They can say] we’ll do our job if the kids get here, but we need the community’s help in identifying who’s missing, some of the reasons why, and helping us get those kids to school.”

To Gottfried, this is the biggest challenge for schools and districts trying to address absenteeism: “When we’re talking about absenteeism, once the kid leaves that day, the kid may or may not come back tomorrow. This is no longer just about school — it’s about school, community, and parents. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.”

Promising practices in reducing absenteeism

Gottfried and Hutt’s upcoming book will focus on promising practices to address chronic absenteeism, with the caveat that not every solution is scalable because different communities have different challenges. However, there is some “low-hanging fruit,” as Hutt called it, that districts can address.

Gottfried and Hutt said one of most effective practices they have seen is focusing on better school-parent communication. Several districts are piloting the use of automated text messages that get sent to the parent whenever their student misses a day of school. “The idea behind why this is working is pointing to just the lack of constant communication and lines of communication between parents and schools,” Gottfried said.

Some districts are coming up with innovative ways to address health issues. One of the other panelists, Joshua Childs, recently published research he has been doing in Central Texas showing how districts are collaborating with health clinics to address absences due to the flu and a lack of flu shots for many children.

Finally, Gottfried and Hutt described how some districts are targeting the transition periods where absences tend to be the highest, such as the transition to kindergarten, fifth grade (middle school), and ninth grade. Some districts realized that absences were spiking then and created intentional strategies to target parents during those transitions.

States need to give districts flexibility in measuring chronic absenteeism

While North Carolina has not added chronic absenteeism rates to its proposed accountability system, many states have, and that worries Gottfried and Hutt.

Policies to encourage 100 percent attendance can be dangerous, Hutt warned. “There are some instances where you might not want a child in your school. If that child has lice or meningitis or there’s an outbreak, you don’t want that child in school. If the road conditions are unsafe, you don’t want school buses on the roads.”

Tying penalties to attendance rates can also create perverse incentives for schools, as we have seen happen recently in Washington, D.C. As Hutt described, “We know from our experience with No Child Left Behind that if you ask unreasonable things of schools, the result will be they will game your system. You will take something that is commonsense like we want students to learn and do well on their tests, and you will create perverse incentives.”

Attendance is especially susceptible to gaming the system, Hutt argued, because there is no way for the state to verify attendance records of every school. The state has to rely on teachers and principals accurately reporting attendance rates, and if schools are penalized if they do not improve enough, they will be incentivized to fudge the numbers.

Hutt described one of the biggest challenges moving forward will be to ensure states allow districts the flexibility to better understand attendance challenges and find solutions:

“The hard part will be — and I think districts should really advocate for themselves on this — to make states give them the flexibility that they need to pursue better attendance practices and engage the parents and the community.  They need to be given the leeway and the political cover to do that. If it’s just top down, it’s not going to work…If states are genuine about this, then give districts some space and some time to study the problem and develop credible plans for addressing it.”

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.