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School attendance data highlights need for better intervention tools

Cynthia Rogan January 7, 2021

School attendance is a leading indicator for major outcomes in life.

Chicago Public Schools determined that children who are chronically absent during the years between Pre-K and First Grade are less likely to read at grade level in Third Grade, likely as a result of early work developing letter recognition and pre-literacy skills. As early as 2012, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published findings that by the end of Third Grade, students who are not reading at grade level drop out of high school four times more than their peers who were reading at grade level.

The outcomes of chronic absence continue to escalate each year beginning with early childhood. By middle school, 14% of students are chronically absent. The rate of chronic absence grows to 20% for high-school-aged students. A study of public school students in Utah found that any student chronically absent during high school was seven times more likely to drop out – even if it was just during a single school year. 

Sociology textbooks have been written about the impact that dropping out of school has on young people.

Focussing on the “results” side of chronic absenteeism takes us only so far without understanding the drivers that keep students from attending school. School Districts hire attendance officers to try and manage some aspects of chronic absenteeism, like truancy, but in many ways this is also a reaction to, or result of, the problem. Face-to-face interventions with students are critical but accountability at home is what makes those interventions have an impact.

Todd Rogers of Harvard Kennedy school found that parents of students who are chronically absent underestimate the number of days that their child has missed school by a factor of two – meaning they’re under the impression that half as many days were missed than were missed in actuality. To make matters worse, of those parents, only 28% recognize that their student missed more school days than their peers. Part of any intervention strategy is parental awareness. The challenge here is reaching parents in a way that will actually reach them.

Chronic absence is a growing problem. Face-to-face interventions and parent-teacher conferences are not possible in many situations. Regardless of what is happening in the world, students cannot fall behind, just as business must go on. Like the corporate world shifting to virtual strategies, the world of education must focus on adapting. The reality of school attendance data highlights the need for better intervention tools. We must use every tool we have available to ensure that students make it to school each day.

Text-messaging parents when their student does not show up for school is the first step we can take to reduce absence. This begins the process of addressing attendance in actuality – with real information about their student. Interventions do not matter if there is no accountability. Accountability can only be a factor once awareness has been established.

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