Families & the Community

3 Signs That Schools Are Sending the Wrong Message About Attendance

By Evie Blad — March 24, 2023 3 min read
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As schools battle heightened levels of chronic absenteeism, researchers say the way they talk about attendance can affect students’ and families’ efforts to turn around patterns of missed school days.

For one, how parents interpret school attendance policies can affect whether or not they properly report absences that may be considered excused for reasons like illness or bereavement, researchers wrote in a new analysis this week.

Absences improperly categorized as unexcused can lead to harsher consequences, like withheld credits or a restriction on makeup work, which can make it difficult to get students back on track, said the report by researchers from the University of Tennessee, the University of California, Davis, and Attendance Works, a national organization that promotes tracking and addressing poor school attendance.

“If there isn’t this kind of trust built between teachers and parents, parents and the schools, then the kind of messaging that schools develop around attendance may not resonate with parents,” said UC Davis education professor Kevin Gee, who coauthored the report.

Analyzing three years of California attendance data, Gee and his coauthors found Black and Latino students and students labeled as socioeconomically disadvantaged in the state’s data system had a larger percentage of their absences labeled as unexcused compared to their peers in other demographic groups.

That may be in part because of varying levels of familiarity with school policies among parents—and different approaches to communicating those policies, the report said. The researchers drew those conclusions after an analysis of web pages and student handbooks for a random sampling of 40 high schools and middle schools throughout the state.

Here are a few ways researchers said schools’ messages on attendance may miss the mark.

Messages that focus on consequences, not support

Messages to families about attendance policies should focus on support, not just consequences for truancy or persistent absences, the authors wrote.

The analysis of school messages included a comparison of schools with largely socioeconomically disadvantaged students—a term that describes students with a number of household factors, including parents without high school diplomas, participation in free and reduced-price school meal programs, and homelessness.

“We found that the websites and student handbooks of the high-poverty, racially segregated schools communicated more punitive policies than the websites and handbooks of the more affluent schools,” the analysis said. “Similarly, the socioeconomically disadvantaged schools were more likely to publish policies stating that truancy would result in suspension of driver’s licenses, loss of school privileges like extracurricular participation, and Saturday school or in-school detention.”

While some schools with high enrollments of students from low-income families posted outdated references to state law and jargon-heavy policies about punishment for truancy, wealthier schools took a more supportive approach, the analysis found. In one example, a school’s attendance page included a photo of a smiling concierge waiting to serve a customer.

Policies that are unclear or inaccessible to parents

Some students have higher percentages of their absences labeled unexcused because their parents have less experience interacting with school policies and practices, the authors said.

But schools don’t always do a good job of helping families navigate the system, the analysis found. In some cases, policies on attendance weren’t available at all on school or district web pages or in student handbooks. In others, it focused mostly on state law and not practical steps for parents to report and address missed school days.

Attendance Works advocates for materials that are available in multiple languages, if necessary, and available in multiple forms, including online, in materials sent home to parents, and in regular campaigns to encourage school attendance.

A focus on perfect attendance, rather than building better habits

Gone are the days of gold stars for perfect attendance.

If a student is motivated by attendance awards, one sick day or unavoidable absence can take them out of the running and weaken the incentive, Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, told Education Week in December.

“When kids and families face real barriers and we don’t offer supports, then you’re just further having kids feel like, ‘Oh, I’m facing a struggle and I can never be part of a school community,’ and creating greater disconnection,” Chang said. “Perfect attendance awards can be counterproductive and discouraging for these students. It’s the relationships that matter.”

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