Families & the Community

Want to Tackle Chronic Absenteeism? Try Texting Parents

By Alyson Klein — January 26, 2022 6 min read
Image of a cell phone, and a text alert.
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Texting parents about their child’s attendance can help combat chronic absenteeism, which has risen signficantly during the pandemic.

But not all texts are equally effective, experts caution. And the quick messages must be part of a broader communications strategy to improve attendance or their impact will be weakened.

Texting has a lot of advantages, experts and educators, say. It’s a form of communication that’s frequently used by parents, instantaneous, and can be automated and customized to include a student’s name and updates on number of school days missed. Texting services are also relatively inexpensive, with costs for the school year ranging from about $7 to $8.50 per student, according to a handbook on the strategy recently released by the Institute of Education Sciences.

“A text message is immediate. It’s the quickest way to let a parent know, ‘your child is struggling with attendance, get a hold of us. We’re here to help,’” said Michael Romero, the superintendent of local district south, a regional school system within the Los Angeles Unified School District, which uses the strategy.

The approaches for using texting to improve student attendance vary. Districts can send “same-day” notifications whenever a student is absent, updates on the number of days a kid is absent during a certain period of time, or text messages about the connection between student attendance and academic performance. Districts can choose to use all of those approaches, too.

Text messages to parents pack the biggest punch when they are as specific as possible, educators and experts say. Those specifics include details such as the child’s name, their teacher’s name, and the exact number of days the student was absent.

Text messages are also much more effective if they address student attendance over a longer period of time—for instance, a whole school semester versus just one week, said Todd Rogers, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, citing research he consulted on at EveryDay Labs, an organization that implements absence-reduction interventions with districts.

Rogers added that providing the specific number of absences is very important, because parents often underestimate how often their children miss school.

Hedy Chang, the founder and executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that works to combat chronic absenteeism, emphasized that parents also like to see that their child’s teacher, or principal, is involved in the text. They might wonder why, if there was a problem with their child’s attendance, they didn’t hear about it from a teacher or principal first.

In general, text messaging parents is most likely to benefit kids who are “teetering” on the edge of chronic absenteeism rather than those with major, systemic issues going on at home that are keeping them out of school, Chang said.

But what that means is that the impact among all students is limited. “Messaging by itself isn’t going to solve a problem,” Chang pointed out. “What it does is help people prioritize, be a little more aware. … If you really had a serious [attendance] challenge, you would probably need something else.”

A 2017 randomized study highlighted in the recently released IES handbook bears that out. It found a 12 percent to 18 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism among students whose families received the texts, compared with similar families who did not. The effect was a little lower for students who had a lot of absences in prior school years, about a 7 percent to 15 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism for those kids whose parents got the texts compared with those who didn’t.

That study included 108 elementary schools in four large, urban districts. Ninety percent of the schools had high-poverty populations. And overall, they had chronic absence rates of 20 percent, meaning that 1 of every 5 students missed at least 10 instructional days per year.

Chronic absenteeism is typically a warning sign that a student or family is struggling with something in their lives outside of school, said Elsy Rosado, the director of pupil services and attendance for the Los Angeles Unified School District. That’s why L.A. Unified, the second largest in the country, takes a more comprehensive approach featuring text messages, letters, phone calls, and even home visits.

The district is “really trying to communicate to families the importance of attendance, but then also that that we as a district are here to support them,” Rosado said. That’s why, she said, it’s especially important that text messages—even if they are automated—point parents to a way to connect with real people in the district for help.

Too many texts will produce diminishing returns

There can be too much of a good thing when it comes to texting. Parents are likely to begin to tune out texts from the district if they are receiving a lot of them, Rogers said.

“The 17th text message you receive is less valuable than the first,” he said. There may be a significant response when districts first start texting parents, but the impact will likely fade over time.

There are other difficulties with the approach. Families—particularly those living in poverty—are more likely to change addresses and phone numbers more frequently, making it difficult for district officials to connect with them consistently, Rosado said.

And sometimes, text messages on their own aren’t as effective as good, old-fashioned paper, Romero said. He’s seen success at some of his schools with what he calls “nudge” letters. Those are sent through snail mail to families and include both the number of days their child has been absent, and the typical attendance for a student in their same grade, at the same school.

The portion of the district he oversees ran a randomized control trial and found that in the first year of the program, these “nudge” letters decreased chronic absenteeism—defined as students who missed 16 days or more—by about 10 percent, Romero said.

Unlike text messages, which are sometimes forgotten shortly after a parent reads them, the letters could wind up posted on refrigerators or shared with other caregivers, Romero said. They are “an artifact that seems to stick around,” he said.

The two approaches—digital and paper—seem to work best when paired together, he said.

The texting strategy is ultimately about building relationships between the district and parents. And that makes the actual texting part a lot less important than what is said, Rogers explained.

“Texting is not an intervention,” he said. “It’s a mode of communicating. The magic of any intervention is who said what to whom and how.”

Sending mixed messages during a pandemic is a potential problem

Even as school interruptions caused by COVID-19 ramped up the urgency to get kids to attend school when they are healthy, the virus has made texting their parents a little trickier in some places.

Before the pandemic, the Washoe County school district in Nevada, which includes the city of Reno, experimented with texting parents to improve student attendance, said Rechelle Murillo, the director of the district’s intervention department.

But the project is on pause, for now. “It is a tough time to do something like this. We’re asking families, ‘keep your children home if they’re sick.’ But then if there are [texts] saying, ‘we want your children in school,’ families feel like it’s a mixed message,” Murillo said.

Before the pandemic, the district piloted the texting strategy at a handful of elementary schools and saw slight decreases in absenteeism at most of them. But the changes weren’t significant enough for Washoe to conclude that the texts improved attendance, Murillo said.

She’s optimistic, though, that the district may see more substantial benefits when it rolls out a more personalized version of the messaging, possibly next fall. But even if the texts spur more kids to make it to school on time, they won’t be a silver bullet, she cautioned.

“This can’t just be the one thing that you’re doing” to combat attendance problems, Murillo said. “I think it needs to be a combination of things, including building relationships with families.”

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Want to Tackle Chronic Absenteeism? Try Texting Parents


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