Early Childhood

Absences in Early Grades Tied to Learning Lags

By Linda Jacobson — September 30, 2008 8 min read
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When Thomas B. Lockamy became the superintendent of the Savannah-Chatham County school system in Georgia three years ago, he didn’t set out to go after students who were missing too much school.

But while his initial focus was the reliability of data being collected at district schools, those concerns soon exposed a pattern of chronic absenteeism among some young elementary students living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Having solid data became the first step in addressing what a new report identifies as an underrecognized problem: chronic absenteeism in the primary grades.

“Common sense and research suggest that being in school consistently is important to ensuring children gain a strong foundation for subsequent learning,” says the report, “Present, Engaged, and Accounted For,” from the National Center for Children in Poverty, at Columbia University.

The analysis joins a small but growing body of research on absenteeism in the early grades, an issue that experts say is often eclipsed by concerns about truancy among older students. Among the many reasons to focus on this largely “overlooked” issue, the report’s authors suggest, is that improving early-grades attendance can help schools meet their achievement goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Chronic absence in the early grades—which the researchers define as missing at least 10 percent of the school year through both excused and unexcused absences—is probably more common than some school officials and parents think, the report says. And that’s partly because hard data on the problem are often lacking.

“While growing interest in state data systems with universal student identifiers creates an opportunity to collect such data systematically, many districts have yet to develop the capacity for tracking absences for individual students,” note authors Hedy N. Chang and Mariajose Romero in the NCCP report, which was financed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Learning Loss

Analyzing the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, Ms. Romero, a senior research associate at the NCCP, found that more than 11 percent of kindergartners and close to 9 percent of 1st graders are chronically absent. In schools serving poor children, the percentages are probably higher, the report says.

Chronic absenteeism can also vary tremendously within a school district, the analysis shows.

Lasting Damage

A recent analysis found that going to school regularly in the early years was especially critical for children living in poverty. Among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicted the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of 5th grade.


SOURCE: National Center for Children in Poverty

In one of the nine districts examined closely by Ms. Romero and Ms. Chang, who is a consultant to the Baltimore-based Casey Foundation, the rates ranged from 1 percent to 54.5 percent for individual schools. Districtwide, 13.8 percent of students were chronically absent in the early grades.

Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten have the lowest performance in reading, mathematics, and general knowledge in 1st grade, the study found. Chronic absenteeism also affects Latino children’s reading scores more than those of their non-Hispanic white and African-American peers, even if they miss roughly the same number of days, the analysis found.

Finally, the report says that the effects of missing at least 10 percent of the school year in kindergarten extend to the end of elementary school for children in poverty, with those students still posting the lowest reading and math scores in 5th grade.

While the NCCP report does not focus on students beyond elementary school, evidence gleaned from other research suggests that high school dropouts are more likely than graduates to be chronically absent as early as 1st grade.

“Dropping out of school, although identified by a single event, reflects a long process of disengagement and withdrawal from schooling and educational institutions,” Joyce L. Epstein, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wrote in a 2002 paper on improving attendance in the elementary grades through family involvement.

Learning Loss

Ms. Epstein stresses that for most elementary schools in most districts, high absenteeism is not a problem.

But Ms. Romero suggested that even when it is, it’s not receiving much attention—from policymakers or researchers—because 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds who miss a lot of school are generally not hanging out and getting into trouble.

“People are very concerned about absenteeism among older children. They’re more visible, and they have more control over their whereabouts,” Ms. Romero said in an interview. “That’s not the case with younger children.”

The study explores the wide range of possible reasons why absences might pile up for a young elementary school student. Parents might not understand the consequences of missing school, might lack basic resources, such as food, clothing, and transportation, or might have had a history of negative experiences with schools and don’t feel welcome.

Children in highly mobile families are also more likely than other students to miss a lot of school before and after a move.

“For some students—minorities, low-income students—the school experience can be pretty trying,” Ms. Romero said.

And while family turmoil and stress can contribute to children’s absences, the report suggests that chronic absenteeism can also point to problems in how schools relate to children and their families.

A school might not have clearly communicated the importance of attendance to parents, especially if the parents don’t speak English. Officials might not be getting in touch with parents if children are absent, or even monitoring the number of absences. Or a school might not be providing an engaging educational experience.

“Children need to feel that they as individuals count in the life of the school,” Ms. Romero said.

‘Personal Contact’

In Savannah—one of the nine localities studied in the NCCP project—the combination of hiring a data expert, holding school personnel responsible for attendance, and allowing local reporters to cover extreme situations in which the police were involved has helped reduce serious cases of chronic absenteeism in the early grades to about 5 percent across the 34,000-student district, down from 10 percent in 2003.

And the prevalence of high absenteeism among the district’s youngest students in low-income neighborhoods is even less than it is in some higher-income areas.

But even with those results, school administrators have learned they can’t rest easy.

“As problems go, there are far more complicated problems that are hairier and harder to deal with than absenteeism and truancy,” said Bucky Burnsed, a spokesman for the Savannah-Chatham County district. “But you absolutely can’t let it go. It takes accountability at every level.”

Under the district’s approach, a letter is sent home after a child misses school three days in a row. The district also has counselors and social workers who “are willing to get in their car and say, ‘Put the PlayStation down and get ready for school,’?” Mr. Burnsed said, referring to a console for video games.

In her 2002 paper, Ms. Epstein reported on a small study she conducted of 12 elementary schools that are part of the National Network of Partnership Schools, which she directs.

Because of the modest number of schools participating, the results should be “viewed conservatively,” she wrote, but added that the study showed some practices were more successful than others at improving chronic absenteeism.

Conducting home visits, rewarding students for good attendance, giving parents a contact person at the school, and communicating well with all families reduced chronic absenteeism, according to the study. On the other hand, the research found, using truant officers, referring parents to counselors, and holding attendance workshops for parents did not have the desired effect. “It’s through the personal contact generally that you can get the biggest bang for your buck, positively,” Ms. Epstein said.

While the Savannah-Chatham district has resorted to involving law-enforcement officers and the courts in extreme cases, some experts say that the use of punitive measures only worsens relationships between home and school.

“It creates tremendous animosity and distrust,” Ms. Romero said, adding that “it doesn’t really address the issues” among families facing multiple risks.

Seeking Arbitration

The National Center for School Engagement, based in Denver, however, did find positive results from a Jacksonville, Fla., program run by the state attorney general’s office for elementary school families that did not respond to intervention from their schools.

The Truancy Arbitration Program, a demonstration project of the office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice, involves summoning families to a hearing before volunteer arbitrators. Parents sign an attendance “performance agreement” and are offered help in addressing family problems. Only when the hearing process doesn’t work can parents be arrested.

The center’s 2006 evaluation of the program concluded that while absences were not dramatically reduced, “grades were improving and failure was all but eliminated, two indicators that these students were on the path to successful school completion.”

Ken Seeley, the president of the school-engagement center, said he believes school administrators don’t pay enough attention to attendance, in part because they are overwhelmed with other demands and mandates. To change that lack of attention, he’s pushing for states to move to basing school funding on average daily attendance, instead of on one or two headcount days during the school year.

“A lot of places are scared off, because they think it’s administratively cumbersome,” Ms. Chang said of using a system based on average daily attendance.

California and Kentucky are among the states that do use an average, and New Jersey and New Mexico are moving in that direction, Mr. Seeley said.

The NCCP report also calls for expanding high-quality preschool programs, saying they “play an invaluable role in reducing chronic absence by orienting families to school norms and helping families make regular school attendance part of their daily routine.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2008 edition of Education Week as Absences in Early Grades Tied to Learning Lags


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