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Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions Webinar Recap

On September 24th, AllHere Education hosted a webinar in conjunction with Education Week. The webinar featured Dr. Mike DeArmand and Dr. Peter Begrman, and was hosted by Kristen Diamond and Joanna Smith of AllHere. In recognition of Attendance Awareness Month, the team set out to share valuable insights around evidence-based intervention strategies.

Dr. Mike DeArmand is a Senior Research Analyst at Center for Reinventing Public Education (CPRE) in Seattle. CPRE is an initiative supported by the University of Washington – Bothell, that examines efforts to rewire the system for school coherence, ongoing improvement, and excellence for every student—moving from the classroom to the school, to policy implications. Or, as DeArmand puts it “how adult practices need to shift to meet the needs of students.”

Dr. Peter Bergman is an Associate Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Co-Chair of the Education Technology Initiative at Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT. Bergman realized there was a communication problem in schools when he saw stacks upon stacks of return mail in the Los Angeles School District office. Report cards had just gone out – hundreds of students and families missed getting last term’s grades.

CPRE Pandemic Insights

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, DeArmand and CPRE have been tracking how schools and school districts have responded to all the changes required to keep students in school regardless of place.

In the Spring of 2020, schools had to close and suddenly students were not required to physically attend school – district leaders had to figure out how to get online learning up and running. School is where students spend most of their time – without the common resources of being in a building together, other challenges became apparent. Attendance was affected by inequality in access to technology, housing, food, and economic security more than ever. A review of national samples suggested that many districts were not tracking attendance at all at this point. By Fall 2020 district leaders begin to notice “missing students.” Some districts began to implement tracking systems for attendance for online courses, but the vast majority of school districts struggled to track remote learning. As the school year progressed, these missing students became chronically absent – they were missing students, were they becoming lost students?

Towards the end of the 2020-2021 school year, most schools had nailed down a way to measure attendance. Some districts measured hours of instruction, some measured based on task completion. When school went back in session during Fall 2021, districts were more prepared and proactive in handling instruction and administration. The reality was that they continued to work against issues of technology access and social equity. The chaos of the 2020-2021 school year made a lasting impact – schools now had to find and support their missing students. In addition to supporting missing students, districts must work to restore the pandemic’s negative effect on academic performance, especially among Black, Latino, and Native American Students. 

Social and learning conditions matter more than ever. 

District leaders are recognizing that something must be done to help all students. “Attending” school is not the same undertaking for every student. Meals, internet access, having an adult around to help, or having to self-motivate for an entire day or remote learning are all part of the attendance process. 

Attendance Works has a great approach to understanding how schools utilize intervention strategies within their student body. In this tiered system, we see the target group of students decrease in size but increase in terms of outreach and intervention intensity. The tiered approach taken by most schools requires administrators to get the right student, using the right approach, at the right time – every time.

Due to the critical nature of Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions, it is common for school districts to over-invest in the tools and resources needed to manage higher tier interventions.

Unfortunately, this “top loading” of resources has unintended consequences. What begins as a lack of universal prevention ends up being a “layover” where students are at risk, but the school has nowhere to direct them in terms of resources. Schools without adequate Tier 1 resources are rarely reaching students missing school here and there – and they aren’t looking for any patterns until students reach a level of chronic absenteeism. As a result of this misallocation of resources, more students end up in situations requiring Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions.

You need Tier 1 for everyone. Universal prevention helps all students stay on track and attend school each day. Applying Tier 1 intervention strategies to all students, regardless of how often they miss school prevents students from going missing in the first place. Another critical aspect of keeping students from losing their way is investments in the whole school experience. Support for the whole school is the foundation on which all the other tiers rest, and it ultimately influences whether higher tier strategies work in a district.

The combination of Tier 1 Universal Prevention interventions and accessible foundational supports help districts reduce barriers in getting students to school, keep families and students engaged, and address attendance in real-time.

An Evidence-Based Approach

Back to the academic story with Bergman and DeArmand, and how the tiers of intervention strategies relate.

When looking at school districts – there is so much variability, down to every building operating in its own way. With such a diverse sample, what is “good evidence”? Casual information is more difficult to unravel when compared to correlational insight, but neither carries the weight that would satisfy our presenters.

Randomized control trials are the pinnacle of evidence for ESSA. This level of rigor is a necessary approach given today’s challenges and needs. In these RCT scenarios, we can draw the strongest evidence of impact. We would consider this Tier 1 evidence – the most critical and substantiated. This is where Bergman and DeArmand have been directing their resources.

Bergman’s research has proven that across the US, and even globally, parents vastly underestimate the number of missed school days and assignments. On average, 30% of parents thought their student missed zero assignments but in actuality, this is 20%. What is contributing to the difference between perceived attendance and actual attendance?

Not news is NOT good news when it comes to school. In his initial trials, Bergman began sending texts every two weeks with attendance/absences and missed assignments (tests, class assignments, homework, etc.).  His belief was that when you reach out immediately, parents have the conversation with their students sooner. Engagement between parent and school increases interaction between parents and students with positive outcomes – and rather than wait for a report card, parents can follow along in real-time. The one-man-pilot program was a success in LASD where Bergman got started and this drove home the importance of meeting people where they are – updating existing approaches to meet current needs. 

Bergman’s research has proved that it is worth prioritizing texting because:

  1. It’s easier to track a phone number than address in many instances

  2. Texting is nonintrusive and familiar

  3. Texting establishes real communication between families and schools

When we open up communication between schools and families, we can begin asking important questions. Do families feel supported and does the school district meet them where they are? Do we know what the attendance journey looks like for students? We can’t know what’s preventing kids from attending unless we ask. Assumptions and inferences do nothing to inform action.

The Path Forward in Attendance Interventions

If you’re considering introducing a text message-based attendance assistant within your district, we have a few tips from AllHere’s founder, Joanna Smith. First, conduct your due diligence – look for RCT-proven platforms that provide Tier 1 Universal Prevention off the shelf. Secondly, make sure that any platform you are considering is multi-lingual and interactive. This ensures that every student can be reached and any messages from your district provide value to students and families. Finally, don’t overlook the technical integration capabilities of your platform – make sure that your ATS and other student administration platforms are supported. 

The best virtual attendance platforms can help reinforce and simplify the attendance process for each student. If you’re curious about AllHere, don’t hesitate to ask us!


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