Measure and Learn: Combatting Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades (Part 2)

May 07, 2018

RELevant Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Chronic absenteeism—defined as missing 10 percent or more days of school—is a significant problem for the nation’s youngest students. Although schools and districts face many challenges related to pre-K and kindergarten attendance, several promising strategies to tackle chronic absenteeism have emerged.

Strategies to confront chronic absenteeism include visiting the homes of families with chronically absent children and adding buses to transport young children to school. Many districts have cut back on busing—national data show that in the 2010–2011 school year, only 25 percent of kindergarten students were bused to school. Organizations such as Attendance Works have drawn attention to chronic absenteeism and disseminated shared information on promising strategies.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational laboratory (REL) research alliance on Strengthening the Early Education Continuum works with states and districts on strategies to improve attendance of our youngest learners. Through an Ask A REL query, REL Mid-Atlantic recently identified several studies on promising attendance strategies targeted to the youngest students.

Even so, little rigorous evidence exists about whether these strategies actually improve attendance. The absence of rigorous evidence indicates that, too often, schools implement strategies without carefully assessing whether they work. School and district staff might lack the time, resources, and evaluation background to conduct evaluations. In the Mid-Atlantic region, local and state education agencies have partnered with the REL for free assistance in evaluating the policies and strategies they put into place. One partnership produced critical evidence on the effectiveness of a low-cost strategy to modestly improve attendance.

Attendance Information PostcardIn 2014, REL Mid-Atlantic partnered with the School District of Philadelphia to test the effectiveness of sending a postcard home to parents that encouraged them to improve their children’s attendance—an approach called a behavioral nudge. Random assignment was used so that some parents received the postcard and others did not. The results showed that a single postcard sent home to parents reduced absences by 2.4 percent. With just a little bit of planning and effort, the school district learned definitively that its strategy worked. The experiment also provided important evidence for the field, demonstrating the effectiveness of a strategy that other districts across the region and the country might immediately adopt.

To date, the lion’s share of attendance strategies have focused on older students. Effective approaches for pre-K and kindergarten students might require engaging more with parents through home visits by staff from the school or a community organization partner to assess and meet needs for health care or other issues. Building on the postcard results, providing parents of younger students with information on the relationship between regular attendance in the early grades and reading proficiency in grade 3 could also make a difference. And evaluating whether these strategies for younger students actually work is critical.

Developing and testing promising attendance strategies that match students’ circumstances is important. Districts can connect with parents through focus groups to better understand their needs and identify barriers students face in showing up for school. Piloting new strategies on a small scale provides opportunities to uncover and respond to challenges. Districts can then iron out bugs and scale up their interventions. Including a comparison group—perhaps with the help of the U.S. Department of Education’s Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach—districts assess an intervention’s effectiveness. Getting evidence on what works will help tackle the problem of chronic absenteeism in the early grades.

Read part 1 of this post.

Cross-posted from the REL Mid-Atlantic website.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of Mathematica Policy Research.

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