Chat
October 27, 2008

Chronic Absenteeism in U.S. Schools

    Guests:
  • Dr. Mariajosé Romero is co-author of "Present, Engaged, and Accounted For." Dr. Romero is a senior research associate at the National Center for Children in Poverty.
  • Hedy Nai-Lin Chang is co-author of "Present, Engaged, and Accounted For," as well as a researcher, writer, and facilitator. She also consults with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • Dr. Jane Sundius is the director of the Education and Youth Development Program at OSI-Baltimore and co-authors a series of policy papers on absenteeism in Baltimore City Public Schools.

Rebecca Wittenstein (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to Education Week’s Live Chat: Chronic Absenteeism in U.S. Schools

Joining us live are Dr. Jane Sundius, director of the Education and Youth Development Program at OSI-Baltimore, Dr. Mariajosé Romero and Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, co-authors of Present, Engaged, and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, a recent report from the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. In this Live Chat, they will answer your questions about the problems chronic absenteeism creates for students, schools, and families, as well as measures school communities may take to curb this growing problem. I’m Rebecca Wittenstein, a research associate in the EPE Research Center, and I’ll be moderating this discussion with our guests, each of whom has a unique background and perspective on absenteeism and truancy in our nation’s schools. We’re already getting a tremendous number of questions for this chat, so let’s get right to them.

Question from Joanne McGrath, Coordinator, Department of Education, NWT:

What are 3 to 5 effective strategies that can be used to educate parents about the importance of regular attendance in school? How can parents learn the importance of establishing routines at home that include waking up and ensuring their children are prepared for a school day? This seems out of reach for many schools because the issue goes beyond the control of the school.

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

Before looking at strategies, I think we we should think about what we can say to help parents understand why school attendance matters for their child's well-being. Such messages include: -- while not compulsory, going to kinderten regularly matters since it is no longer just a transition to formal education but a time when key academic concepts are already being covered. It also helps children get into the habit of going to school. -regular attendance in the early grades matters because they need enough time on task to learn basic academics. For example, if children do not read proficiently by the end of third grade, they will be in serious trouble because by fourth grade, they need to read well enough to learn their other subjects. What happens in early elementary school lays the foundation for whether children will graduate or drop-out from high school. In today's economy, having a high school degree and arguably a college degree is essential to obtaining a decent paying job.

Once we are clear about our messages, schools should look at all the ways they can convey this information to all parents including kindergarten orientation meetings, parent teacher conferences, written information for parents (ideally translated into the languages spoken by families.) In addition, schools can establish a school culture that supports regular attendance by establishing attendance incentives for students. If a family is experiencing attendance problems, then an effective strategy is having someone they trust and respect call them to convey concern, find out what is happening and link the family to needed resources.

Question from Timothy T. Eagen; Supervisor of Assessment, Math and Science; South Huntington UFSD:

Some state education departments are considering some form of attendance accountability. Can we/should we hold schools and districts accountable for student attendance?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

State education departments need to examine carefully why some schools and districts have serious difficulties ensuring that students consistently attend school on a daily basis. Simply mandating that schools and districts comply with yet another requirement at the risk of being sanctioned does not help address the problem. The reasons why students are chronically absent, more so in some schools than others, are complex. Viable solutions depend on the joint effort of schools, districts, state education departments, and communities to understand the particular factors related to chronic absenteeism in a locality, provide the kinds of supports needed at different levels (e.g., student, family, classroom, school, neighborhood), and implement strategies to redress chronic absence.

Question from Therese Schmisseur; Academic Coach, Compadre High School (Tempe, Arizona):

What strategies can high school teachers use(on a day to day basis) to get students to come to class?

Dr. Jane Sundius:

I think the most powerful strategies are ones that let students know that you want them there, notice when they are not present, and care about why they didn't/couldn't attend. Every thing I read and each teacher/student with whom I ask begins and ends with this point. Students who don't show up think they are not important, not wanted and not missing anything. Let them know that they are a critical member of the class and that educatiion - their own and their classmates' - is diminished when they are away. Phone calls, notes, emails, conversations can all communicate a teacher's desire to have each student in class every day. But let's hear from some teachers and schools who also have successful tactics.....

Question from Scott Petri, Teacher, Los Angeles Unified School District:

Recently, our City Attorney has been issuing citations to parents of truant children. Is there any research that probes the pros and cons or this technique?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

I am not familiar with the research looking at pros and cons. I think, however, the experience of the Truancy Arbitration Program in Jacksonville could offer helpful insights. TAP begins when elementary students continue to have attendance problems even after an attendance intervention team staffed by the school has met with them about the problem. TAP hearings are facilitated by State Attorney volunteers who act as arbitrators for the program. School social workers also participate in the hearings. If there is a problem, the social worker and a case manager working out of the State Attorney Office attempt to rectify it. When appropriate, students are referred for counseling and tutoring. Parents are referred to parenting skills office. After each hearing the parents and the student are required to sign a performance agreement compelling school attendance. If they do not abide by this agreement, parents can be arrested on the basis of contributing to the delinquency of a minor – a first degree misdemeanor as well as a second degree misdemeanor for failure to comply with compulsory school attendance laws. If this is the first time, usually the DA requests that they do not serve jail time but serve one year probation. Typical stipulations are to require parents pay for court costs, attend parenting classes, attend school with child for three full days (so they can see what child is missing) and make sure that all children in the home attend school with no unexcused absences or tardies. Program evaluations conducted by the National Center for School Engagement found significant long-term improvement in both attendance and grades. My take away is that legal strategies can have a best impact but are best used as a last resort rather than the sole strategy or even first line of intervention.

Question from Annette Bennett, Teacher, Brooks High School:

Is the high absenteeism rate just connected to high-poverty students?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

No. High rates of school absence are also related to poor health, race/ethnicity (particularly in kindergarten), and exposure to maternal and family risk (for instance, mothers who were teenagers at birth of the child, single, with less than a high school credential, on welfare, unemployed, or with poor health; or to households with four or more minors or with food insecurity). It is clear that most of these risks tend to co-occur with child poverty. But we cannot disregard the impact of other factors, for instance, chronic health conditions. I found, for instance, that in first grade middle income children with poor health missed school more often than did healthy children. It is possible that at this income level, children with poor health do not have access to state health insurance or other programs, and/or their parents may not have the disposable income to afford insurance co-pays and other uncovered health expenses, thus they more often miss school.

Question from KImberly Meade, Consultant, Macomb INtermediate School District:

Is there any information to address the affects of student absenteeism due to "specials" and "pull outs" (music lessons for example) as opposed to absenteeism due to truancy?

Dr. Jane Sundius:

I am not aware of any research on this exact question. However, in districts like Baltimore, Maryland where absenteeism is high, it much more likely to be the case that students are absent due to chronic illness, fear for personal safety, poor transportation, child and/or family care responsibilities and their own (misguided) beliefs about the unimportance of school than for a more "positive" reason such as music lessons.

Question from Dr. Wendy H. Weiner, Principal, Conservatory Prep Senior High:

How do we cope with parents who allow for their teens to be absent from school on a regular basis even though all parties are aware of the impact upon their grades?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

My suggestions is to start by gaining a deeper understanding of why this situation is occurring. Certainly, if parents are not aware of it, it is important to point out the crucial importance of having a high school degree and ideally a college degree in order to earn a decent living. Often, however, parents may be challenged by shorter-term issues--that result in their acting in ways that may not be in their child's long-term interest. They, for example, they need their teenager to help with child care for younger siblings or to seek employment to make ends meet as a family or perhaps the parents are at a loss about how to control over their teenager's behavior. If you can find out what is happening, then you can look for what are the resources in a community that can help to deal with the situation (e.g. access to subsidized child care, or perhaps helping the family claim the EITC or gain access to other public benefits like Food Stamps to help make ends meet, or family counseling or parenting advice.) Knowing another solution is possible, could help to change the situation.

Question from Rolina Brown, Consultant African American Progress:

What if any impact has the No Child Left Behind program had on improving school attendance

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

There has been no systematic assessment of the impact of NCLB on student attendance nationwide. NCLB requires that schools and district collect attendance data. No provision has been made, however, about how to do it or what to do with this information. Arguably, schools that have implemented reform efforts to turn around their AYP must have addressed their attendance issues. But data supporting this claim are hard to find. On the contrary, there has been considerable discussion about how NCLB has made it difficult for schools and districts to implement programs that retain students who are likely to be chronic absentees and eventually dropouts. One concern cited in the literature is whether students who are absent or mobile do in fact take the assessments required by NCLB. There has been some discussion about different ways in which schools may subtly exclude students who may depress the school's overall test performance, without raising any flags.

Question from Rick Robbins, Asst. Principal, Drew Freeman Middle school:

How much does school climate and morale impact teacher absenteeism

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

We were look at student absenteeism rather than teacher absenteeism. I do worry that high levels of teacher absenteeism can contribute to student absenteeism because it makes it more difficult for teachers to form meaningful relationships to students. That said, there is increasing research also starting to explore the issue of teacher absenteeism that might help answer your question. See for example, the new report Tales of Teacher Absence newly available through the Center for American Progress.

Question from Kim T., Junior High counselor, Michigan:

What should happen in the middle grades when a child has been allowed to miss so much school that they now have a learning gap? I've had children miss as much as a full year of school in total during grades K-6, and then the parent wants them certified special education in 7th grade. They technically have a learning gap, but it's not due to a "disability." However, the child needs help.

Dr. Jane Sundius:

Serious attendance problems, such as the one you have identified, become more and more difficult to address as a child gets older. As the current research indicates, poor attendance generally starts very early and gets worse as a child gets older. To avoid this problem, schools and teachers have to address every absence much earlier. When they don't, school personnel not only have to fix the almost certain and large educational gap, but they must also address the underlying issues in the middle schooler's life that have contributed to poor attendance. Even when there is not a structural reason (eg poor transport or chronic illness), there will be a very bad, and much ingrained habit of non-attendance to overcome. And we all know how hard bad habits are to break! Clearly, though, to answer your question, the middle-schooler's education needs to be accelerated. Assuming there isn't an underlying and unidentified special education issue, my strong preference would be to use tutoring, summer programming and after-school to help move the child forward, rather than a special education designation. In Baltimore, we are experimenting with new, small schools that are for students in grades 6 -12. These schools are designed to allow students to stay with age-mates, but also to fill in their educational gaps. Stay tuned to information about these schools to see how effective they are.

Question from Mr. Herzog, Attendance Retention Coordinator, Lehigh Career & Technical Institute:

I completely agree that habitual absenteeism and truancy stems from primary grades. As someone who deals with high school student's absence issues, what advice can be given to remedy a problem like truancy that has been going on for years?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Please see the 15 strategies identified by the National Dropout Prevention Center (dropoutprevention.org/effstrat/default.htm). Two of these strategies -- early literacy development and early childhood education -- clearly involve interventions early on in students' school careers. But the remaining strategies -- e.g., school-community collaboration, safe learning environments, family engagement, mentoring and tutoring, service learning, etc. -- are critical at all levels of schooling.

Question from Rebecca Wittenstein:

Was there any significant difference in attendance in states with truancy laws versus those without?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

I did not find a difference. I looked at the age at which education was mandated by compulsory education laws across the nine localities. Only one state mandated public education starting at age 5 and it included the site with the 3rd highest level of chronic early absence. In addition, truancy laws are focused unexcused absence. And, while middle and high school students may skip school without the knowledge of an adult in the family, that is less likely to be the case with our youngest students. This research is arguing for more attention to be paid to extended absences from school regardless of the reason for missing school and whether it has been excused or not.

Question from Roberta Bryant, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Wayne County Michigan:

Is there a chance that there could be a national law to require that the dropout age be 18 years old?

Dr. Jane Sundius:

I don't think we are not close to having a national law, but we are seeing states consider and adopt this issue. My own feeling is that everyone needs at least a high school diploma, and that the requirement should be tied to the attainment of a credential (perhaps diploma or GED), rather than the age of 18. It would be interesting to see some experimentation among states on this issue, perhaps requiring attendance until 16 or a diploma/GED is earned, which ever comes last. The reason I feel this is potentially attractive is that there are many students for whom mandatory attendance until 18 would be a real economic hardship in that it would keep them from working at a regular job, and there are others for whom high school is not challenging enough and who need to move on more quickly to college.

Question from Carol L. Jenkins, Senior Director for Testing, Wake County Schools:

Is there any research available that examines the relationship between absenteeism and boredom in the classroom?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Most of the research suggesting a relationship between boredom or lack of enjoyment in the classroom and student disengagement involves qualitative studies of middle and high school students. Findings suggest that students who are disengaged from schools and at risk for skipping school and dropping out find the content of the curriculum and classroom experiences as either too dry and intellectually unchallenging or too difficult, and of little meaning to them.

Question from Mary Powers, Manager Performance Standards Palm Beach county School District:

How does high absenteeism of instructional personnel effect student absenteeism? Are there procedures to curtail this trend that is affecting the learning environments?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

High absenteeism among instructional personnel is certainly a problem because it affects the ability of teachers to form a caring and nurturing relationship with their students. Strong relationships with a teacher is especially important for learning among young children. A new report, Tales of Teacher Absence, by the Center for American Progress discusses this issue. Its key recommendations include:

* Federal policymakers should amend No Child Left Behind to require information on teacher absence on school report cards. School districts already collect data on teacher absences, and sharing it publicly—already the practice in some states—will give parents a more nuanced picture of school quality.

* State policymakers should re-examine and justify statutes governing teachers’ leave privileges. Not enough is known about the appropriate level of leave privileges. Those in some states may be excessively generous, elevating rates of absence and incurring the financial liability of accumulated, unused leave. This liability represents a source of leverage for reducing privileges, where needed.

* Local policymakers should encourage experimentation with and evaluation of incentive policies designed to reduce levels of teacher absence. Many examples of such policies exist, and teachers respond to them. However, little is known about the optimal characteristics of bonus schemes, buy-back provisions, or co-payment programs.

You might look at the report to learn more.

Question from Elise Bowditch, Graduate Student, Dept. of Geography/University of Washington:

How can we improve (or establish) more accurate and useful truancy reporting?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

This is a very important question. First, it would help considerably if we agreed on how we define absenteeism, chronic absenteeism, and truancy. States vary considerably on what constitutes truancy as well as on how they address it. To complicate matters, states also differ in how they define compulsory school attendance. Of importance is how we define excused versus unexcused absences: while excused absences are important, and potentially have an educational impact not only on the absentee but also on his/her classmates, some studies suggest that a high prevalence of unexcused absences may be an indicator of other serious issues in the school and/or community. Second, we need to agree on the methods to collect attendance information in order to ensure that we are talking about the same thing (e.g., do we collect data only during the first two periods, and presume that they represent the entire day? Do we collect it at every period, and if so, do we do it at the beginning or the end?). Third, we need a sophisticated yet easy-to-use information technology infrastructure to collect, analyze and report this information. Fourth, we need to agree on how to report it -- right now, states follow their own priorities, so for instance, some report on average daily attendance, while others report the percent of students who were absent 20 days or more of the school year. Last, but not least, we need to figure out a way to track students who switch schools, districts, or even states. Critical here is to understand how many absences does it take for schools or districts to disenroll students.

Question from Mary Clary, Director of Counseling, Battlefield Middle School, Spotsylvania, VA:

What are some specific strategies and intervantions schools can implement easily to help motivate students to attend school regularly? We find time and time again that the students that don't come also have parents that are uninvolved and don't follow through at home, so what can WE do in the schools to help?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

Schools can adopt several different strategies. First, they can incorporate educating parents about the importance of school attendance, especially starting in Kindergarten, into various types of parent involvement. It can begin with creating an opportunity during school orientation nights, typically held at the beginning of the school year, to help parents to understand why attendance is important because of its impact on the child, and to share relevant rules and regulations. Staff can use their interaction with parents throughout the year to talk with parents about avoiding long vacations while school is still in session or taking care to schedule doctor’s appointments in the non-school hours. Schools can incorporate attendance into parenting workshops by, for example, offering a session on strategies for getting children to school every day, on time. Ideally, such workshops could combine advice from an expert with opportunities for sharing successful strategies and problem-solving among parents.

Second, schools can support a culture of school attendance by a) taking roll every day and noticing when children are not in class and b) rewarding students with good attendance records. This can be as simple as offering extra resource time or acknolwedgement at the school assembly.

Third, schools can facilitate and promote parents and students helping each other attend school. For example, in Verde Involving Parents Program operating on North Richmond, CA trained parent leaders receive the class roll lists from teachers and then called to check in with the parents of all absent students. As parents are called, the VIP parent leaders find out if families are experiencing barriers that could be overcome with the help of other parents, for example, helping each other out with drop-off and pick up. While more difficult situations should be referred to a social worker, the parent leaders can play an important role in helping their peers know that they are valued and should feel comfortable turning to each other for informal support.

Question from Laurie Noll, Principal; Alternative High School:

How important is it for students in an alternative school to be on time each day? Do you think alternative schools should allow students to make up days if possible? There are so many circumstances surrounding days missed such as needing to find money to pay for their apartment, electrical bill, no babysitter, only driver in the family and need to take younger children to school and the list goes on.... How important is it to meet the general high school's credit requirements? What should an alternative school be like and do to help students become successful adults in their future and to allow them to stay in school and not become a statistic?

Dr. Jane Sundius:

I do think that one of the important purposes of an alternative school is to habituate students to the routine of on-time and regular attendance. That said, you are right that many alternative school students face serious challenges in getting to school each day, on-time. I think the key is to be sure that the school is structured to meet its student's needs and that reasons for non-attendance, or tardiness are investigated and addressed. Can the student's school schedule be adjusted to the work/family demands of the his/her life? Can the school help the student find daycare, transportation or help with bill paying? It is unrealistic to expect that as soon as a student starts at an alternative school his/her attendance will magically improve. Rather, part of the alternative school learning has to be about instituting the life changes and supports that will allow students to become successful and on-time attenders. I also believe that it is time to give serious consideration to developing rigorous, alternative pathways to high school graduation that move beyond seat time and credits towards demonstration of skills - both academic and life-related.

Question from Heather Girton, Success By 6 Associate / United Way of Central Indiana:

Is there any evidence to suggest that higher abseneeism occurs with children with no prior pre-K experience and/or is it more likely to occur in areas where school systems do not offer pre-K ?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

My research suggests that children who were chronic absentees in the elementary grades were those who, in the year prior to entering kindergarten, did not attend center-based care or were not cared for by non-relatives but were instead cared for by their parents or relatives. It is possible that this more structured educational experience prior to kindergarten allowed both children and parents to learn to follow the daily routines of getting ready for school and being cared for by strangers. Because of limitations in the data I was unable to examine this issue in terms of whether chronic absenteeism was more prevalent in districts with or without pre-k programs.

Question from Elizabeth Diaz, Research Associate, GLSEN:

Given that research has demonstrated that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students are three times more likely than non-LGBT students to skip classes or full days of school because they feel unsafe at school, LGBT students appear to be at particular risk for both chronic absenteeism and its negative effects on student learning. What can schools do to address this problem?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

Ensuring that LGTB students and their families are not bullied or mistreated at school is an important and critical issue for all the reasons that you mentioned. Schools can play an important role in addressing this issue by:

a) ensuring that all school staff and student understand that teasing or bullying based upon sexual orientation is unacceptable and immediately responding when they see such incidents.

b) helping families from the entire school community understand and accept LGBT students and their families. At my own children's elementary school, for example, we had a family night where we watched a movie -- That's A Family -- that helped everyone to see there are all different types of families. We even watched videos made by children from our own school depicting their own families. Such experiences can help show the commonalities as well as differences across different types of families. It helped to set the tone for the entire school.

These, of course, only scratch the surface of what can be done. As family diversity has increased, the good news is there are more and more resources available for schools to use in educating their teachers, parents and students about how to respect students from all walks of life.

Question from Len Rosen, President, Len Rosen Marketing Inc.:

In your opinion, how can Internet technology play a role in solving the chronic absenteeism problem?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

I think Internet technology could be used to develop information technology infrastructure that would allow schools, districts and communities to efficiently collect, analyze and report attendance data with little delay. Student attendance is an area in which high quality data can inform decision making with potentially positive results.

Question from David Kopperud:

In California, we have a process to reduce dropouts called the school attendance review board (SARB) process which forms a collaborative team at the district and county level to use their expertise and resources to diagnose attendance problems and recommend solutions. The degree of SARB effectiveness varies greatly from district to district. What strategies are other states using?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

A challenge with SARB is that it is triggered primarily by unexcused absence. As a result it misses the many younger children (5, 6 or 7 year olds) who are missing extended periods of time but go unnoticed because an adult has called in letting the school know they won't be going to school. Having schools track, report and address high levels of chronic absence (which includes both unexcused and excused absence) could help to us to take a much more prevention oriented approach.

Question from Katherine Samms, Principal, Dallas ISD:

Do you think one contributing factor to chronic absenteeism is stressed, overtaxed, ineffective management at the administrative level?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Yes, and it is possible that chronic student absence is also one of the causes of stress and excessive, ineffective work on the part of school administrators. Effective school leadership has a tremendous, positive impact on school climate, which in turn, influences student and teacher attendance. The research suggests that schools can curb chronic absenteeism if they communicate to all the importance of daily, consistent attendance; establish mechanisms to monitor attendance and actively address barriers to attendance; focus on student learning and monitoring student progress; and do so by working collaboratively with parents, families, and communities.

Question from Linda L McLaughlin, teacher, Burlingame High School:

Do you think that parents should be held accountable for getting their children to school? Is a monetary fine or threat of legal action appropriate? Are negative incentives proven to produce results?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

I think parents are bottom-line responsible and legal action can play a role but should be used primarily as a last resort. A review of the literature and the experience of successful efforts to reduce absences suggests that school attendance reflects the degree to which schools, communities and families adequately address the needs of young children. Attendance is higher when schools provide a rich, engaging learning experience, have stable, experienced and skilled teachers and actively engage parents in their children’s education. Chronic absence decreases when schools and communities actively communicate consistently to all students and their parents, and reach out to families when their children begin to show patterns of excessive absence. Attendance suffers when families are struggling to keep up with the routine of school despite the lack of reliable transportation, long work hours in poorly paid jobs with little flexibility, unstable and unaffordable housing, inadequate health care and escalating community violence.

Bottom-line, we should look at the extent to which those other issues are at play and need to be addressed before resorting to legal action. Another consideration challenge is that because most states do not require kindergarten, legal action is in fact not an option for the youngest children. The TAP program described in my response to Scott Petri offers an example of where legal strategies can be used effectively.

Question from Carmen Montgomery, Asst. Professor, Niagara University:

What are the most frequent reasons for student absenteeism? How do they differ between elementary and secondary students? What kinds of proactive measures can teachers personally take to reduce absenteeism?

Dr. Jane Sundius:

As students get older, they start to make their own decisions about school attendance, they often have greater responsibility for family or younger siblings, and may have to travel farther to school each day. With changes in home circumstances and responsibilities, increasing independence and changes in the size, location and context of their schooling, come changes in the reasons for attendance and non-attendance. One study shows that among high schoolers, 50% of excused absence was a student choice, and the remaining 50% or so was for other resons - transportation, financial need, child care chores, etc. Teachers are so important in helping students make the right choice about school attendance - if students believe teachers will miss them, that they value their attendance and contributions, they will be more likely to come regularly.

Question from wayne frazier, principal tubman middle school richmond county school system augusta Ga.:

Does the perception of how students feel about how faculty and staff treat and feel about them significantly impact their attendance?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Yes, it does. A wealth of research in the U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand clearly suggests that students are more likely to become disaffected from school, skip classes and eventually drop out if they feel that they, as individuals and members of specific racial, ethnic, socio-economic and/or cultural groups, are not treated with respect by teachers and school administrators. Students also become disengaged from education and schools if the school curriculum and the social organization of schools either misrepresent or devalue their culture.

Question from Melissa Brown-Sims, Research Specialist, Learning Point Associates:

Some states and districts have begun to offer students with incentives (i.e., money, trips, etc) for having perfect attendance. What are the possible pros and cons of offering students these incentives? And do they work?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

A study by Joyce Epstein and Steve Sheldon showed that offering incentives to students is an effective strategy (along with some other approaches such as educating parents about the importance of attendance). What is less clear and more controversial is whether the incentives should be material (such as money or toys) vs. psychological acknowledgement in class, at morning assembly or in the school newsletter, extra recess time, opportunities to dress casually if uniforms are required) to children or sometimes parents for excellent attendance records. Some feel the change in behavior should not be in response to an external reward, while others feel that material incentives, including financial stipends to parents, can effectively motivate participation among harder to reach families. Unfortunately, I am not sure that we yet have the research to say definitely what works or for which populations. Especially, in these hard economic times, however, it is important for schools to recognize that they can do a lot to create student incentives at little or no cost.

Question from Rebecca Wittenstein:

How do students in the juvenile detention system factor into this discussion? Have you noticed a higher frequency of truancy in students who have been through the juvenile justice system?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

Every study I have reviewed shows that students who are involved with the juvenile justice system had poor attendance prior to their involvement, are much more likely to attend irregularly throughout their school careers and much more likely to stop attending before graduation. This link serves to emphasize the need to address attendance problems early on, before they become chronic in nature. School attendance is a powerful predictor of negative life outcomes - focused attention in elementary school seems likely to yield later benefits such as decreased juvenile justice involvement.

Question from Paula Ingrum, Project Director, The Children's Initiative:

What fundamental elements should be included in an elementary school level attendance improvement program?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Research suggests that attendance improvement programs need to: 1) monitor attendance and follow up when children skip school; 2) communicate clearly and unequivocally to all (students, teachers, staff, parents, families, community organizations) the importance of consistent, daily school attendance; 3) address the barriers to attendance within the child, family, neighborhood, school and community; 4) develop collaborative school-family-neighborhood relations; and 5) offer a high quality, engaging learning experience in a safe school environment.

Question from Melissa Mckenzie, ESL Instructional Support, East Baton Rouge School System:

With limited resources in other languages, how do you communicate on a daily basis (or weekly)to parents of older ELLs that they are chronically absent, or skipping class, and that it is a serious problem?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

Communication with parents in a language that they can speak and understand is critical. Especially, if school staff do not have this capacity, I would suggest schools identify who are other organizations (churches, immigrant serving organizations, or possibly even some parents etc.) in the community who could be of assistance in helping the school reach out to the families of these students. Perhaps, you might even find bilingual alumni from your high school who have already graduated and would be willing to help with communication.

Question from Rebeccah Williams, Family Engagement Specialist, Barrow County Schools:

I have seen some ad campaigns focused on this issue posted around schools. is there any evidence of the level of effectiveness these campaigns have on the problem?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

I am not familiar with rigorous evaluations of these type of campaigns. The research suggests that concerted efforts involving schools, families and communities that include not only systemic school reform but also academic, behavioral, and attendance interventions are more likely to successfully addressed chronic absenteeism. In some cases, for instance, there are barriers to school attendance in the community -- e.g., neighborhood violence and crime, lack of transportation, and the like. In order to increase school attendance, these barriers need to be addressed directly through a joint effort by schools, families, and community-based organizations.

Question from Steve Berry, Learning Director, John Muir Midle School:

What about students that are present but chronically tardy to their clases?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Initially, I had hypothezised that tardiness was not only related but, indeed, was a precursor of chronic absenteeism. My analyses of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), suggest that at least in this sample, this is not the case. In the early elementary grades, it appears that students who were tardy and those who were chronically absent were two completely different groups. In other words, tardiness seemed not to be related to chronic absence. In addition, I did not find any relation between tardiness and academic performance. ECLS-K data may be limited regarding tardiness, however, because of the little variation. We may obtain different results if we oversampled schools with high tardiness and high absenteeism.

Question from Margaret Rohr, LMSW Mediation Services:

How is mediation utilized for truancy issues? Have there been cases where mediation has been shown to reduce absenteeism?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

Please see TAP program described in my earlier response to Scott Petri.

Question from Jennifer Klump, Education Resources Advisor, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory:

I just had a teacher contact me for information on incentives for middle school students to encourage better attendance. To my knowledge I thought the research was mixed on the effectiveness of incentives. What have you found?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

Unfortunately, dropping out of school is a complex issue that calls for integrated strategies at many levels. It appears that incentives alone are of limited use to foster school engagement among middle and high school students. Research suggests that dropping out can be significantly reduced if behavioral interventions are an integral part of school reform efforts that also include attendance and academic interventions.

Question from Dianna Blizzard, Personnel, Jones County BOE:

How do you suggest dealing with those students who miss instructional time due to tardiness or early leaves? How do other systems 'count' these absences from class?

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang:

The way systems count tardiness or early leaves varies tremendously across schools and school systems. If these are serious issues, then schools should identify why these issues are occurring (for example, find out if the problem is transportation related) as well as educate parents and students about the importance of arriving and leaving on time. Schools can also strengthen the partnerships with afterschool programs to help students make up for missed class time.

Question from Randolph Thomas, PRE, Director, Virgin Islands ED. Dept.:

How do you intervene when you believe that absenteeism or tardiness is teacher related?

Dr. Mariajosé Romero:

This is a serious issue that requires attention. The little research available suggests that student absenteeism and mobility are higher in schools where teacher absenteeism and mobility are high. There appears to be considerable local variation in the rates of teacher absenteeism and mobility. Further, it is not clear that teachers who skip work are also the ones most likely to leave the job or the profession. But the research suggests that teacher absenteeism and turnover are higher when students are low-income, minority, have serious educational needs, and present persistent discipline and behavior problems, as well as little school engagement -- in other words, just those students most in need of educational continuity. Interestingly, some studies suggest that it is teachers who have been the longest in the teaching workforce who are the most likely to be absent from work, and this phenomenon is partly related to district policies regarding unused vacation and sick days -- if teachers lose these unused days, then they will take them during the school year. Studies also indicate that teacher absenteeism is low in districts that implement policies that allow teachers to accrue unused time benefits in one way or another, and/or distribute among teachers at the end of the year moneys not used in hiring subs.

Rebecca Wittenstein (Moderator):

Thanks for all the great questions, and many thanks to Dr. Sundius, Dr. Romero and Ms. Chang for their time and insights. Unfortunately, we have more questions than time, so we’ll have to leave the discussion there. A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week’s Web site shortly: http://www.edweek.org

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