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Why Chronic Absenteeism Matters
The George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative recently convened an expert working group, including Bush Institute Education Reform Fellow Robert Balfanz, to examine the challenge that chronic absenteeism presents schools and the students they serve. We are working on this problem because missing just 10% of school days – excused or not – puts students at risk to fall behind academically. Once we have identified what the current research and data tells us – as well as highlighted several cities working to combat chronic absenteeism – we will include that information in the Spotlight section of the Bush Institute’s State of Our Cities report.
To date, few states have reported or tracked this information, making it difficult to gauge the impact of chronic absenteeism on student success. Schools and districts traditionally have focused on average daily attendance (ADA) as a measure of healthy student attendance. And, importantly, ADA rates often impact per-pupil funding for districts and schools.
However, what ADA does not capture is which students are absent each day – meaning that there is usually a group of the same students who are most often absent. Excused absence or not, those children will have a much harder time staying on track because they are simply not present in the classroom. They will not master what they are not taught.
Thanks to the release of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) in 2016, we can now see the first national picture of chronic absenteeism:
By the numbers:
*89% of all districts reported some level of chronic absenteeism in the 2013-2014 school year (we believe this is under-reported);
*13% of all students – 6.5 million children in total – were chronically absent in the 2013-2014 school year;
*Half of the 6.5 million chronically absent students – more than 3 million children - can be found in just 4% of all school districts; and
*Chronic absenteeism disproportionally affects minority children and children living in poverty, no matter whether in a rural, suburban, or urban district.
Those are the numbers, but here are some obstacles:
*Not all districts have strong data collection and reporting mechanisms. Without that in place, it can be difficult for educators to identify students at risk and intervene appropriately;
* Schools and districts do not have a commonly-used definition of what it means to be absent. What happens if a student only attends two class periods one day? Or is suspended? Or is on a two week family vacation? Clarifying this at the state or national level will help create valid, comparable data; and
* Students face a number of issues that may cause them to be absent, ranging from health problems to transportation challenges to schoolyard bullying to general disengagement. Asking why kids are missing school is a critical step for communities working to reduce chronic absenteeism rates.
Since there is no one root-cause of chronic absenteeism, the issue is well-suited for broad community engagement to help find solutions. Mayors and city leaders are effective conveners and can bring together the organizations that may have a role to play in helping more children attend school every day. This list includes housing authorities, transportation managers, health care providers, faith communities, neighborhood councils, community and family support agencies, and philanthropists.
Communities have a real interest in solving this problem. But, students, most of all, will benefit from improved systems that help them make it to school each day, ready to learn. Becoming proficient readers, writers, and problem-solvers will enable them to graduate from high school ready for college or the workforce. That is the opportunity all kids deserve.
Anne Wicks, the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the Education Reform Initiative, develops and oversees the policy, research, and engagement work of the Education Reform team. Before joining the Bush Institute, Wicks served as an Associate Dean at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education where she lead a team with revenue, communications, and engagement goals. Additionally, she supported Dean Karen Symms Gallagher on a variety of special projects including the launch and early growth of Ednovate Charter Schools. She currently serves as the chair of PMC Support, a supporting organization for Ednovate Schools, and she serves as a board member for Dallas Afterschool. Over her career, she has held management roles at organizations including Teach for America, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, and Stanford University.
Anne holds a B.A in American Studies and a M.A. in Education from Stanford University (during which she taught 8th grade social studies), as well as a M.B.A. from the University of Southern California. A former captain of Stanford's women's volleyball team, Anne was part of three national championship teams, two as a player and one as an assistant coach.Full Bio
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