As students and families return to school this fall, foundations and donors look for smart strategies to improve outcomes for children and communities. What they may not realize is that reducing absenteeism is a cost-effective, powerful, but often overlooked strategy for reaching that goal.
A growing body of research shows that chronic absence – missing 10 percent of school days for any reason – can have negative and life-long effects on students’ lives. When preschool and kindergarten students are chronically absent, they are less likely to read proficiently by third grade. Chronic absence in elementary school leads to students at a higher risk of course failure in middle school and reduces the chance of on time high school graduation.
Indeed, all students suffer when they are chronically absent, but the prevalence and impact is greater for students growing up in poverty. They are most likely to have multiple years of low attendance and least likely to have resources to make up for lost classroom time.
Because effective strategies to reduce chronic absence benefit entire communities, they can be attractive investments for local and national philanthropies. Local funders are well positioned to help schools and districts uncover local challenges and identify solutions, and funders with a broader geographic reach can support state and regional policies and initiatives to address chronic absence.
While chronic absence is more prevalent in low-income communities and has a higher impact on our more vulnerable students, it represents both a symptom and a cause of many problems that foundations and donors are working to solve. High rates of absenteeism can:
- Flag a child or family in distress due to bullying, unstable housing, violence, illness or other healthcare needs;
- Signal a community with scarce resources and large challenges, such as high rates of asthma, violence, substance abuse, or unstable housing, and lack of food stores, safety, transportation, and healthcare;
- Reflect poor school climate or ineffective schools or school districts;
- Erode initiatives to improve schools and graduation rates; and
- Undermine efforts to provide post-secondary and employment opportunities and to boost local economies.
And because chronic absence is such a powerful predictor of multiple outcomes, it is also a useful yardstick for measuring grantee results. Attendance and chronic absence are already recorded by teachers and understood by parents. It’s essential to other education reforms, and it’s a winnable strategy.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the adoption of some variation of chronic absence in their accountability rubrics by 36 states plus the District of Columbia, is already bringing additional attention to school attendance. The most recent data from the US Department of Education shows that nearly 8 million students were chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year. In some communities, chronic absence affected more than one out of three children.
Because chronic absence is so pervasive in public education, school and district leaders are likely to find that absences are a much bigger problem than they had previously thought. Regardless of whether a state includes chronic absence in their implementation plans, ESSA requires that these data be reported on a biannual basis.
The bright side is that once recognized, chronic absence can be significantly reduced. When schools, families and community partners work together to monitor data, nurture a habit of regular attendance and address hurdles that keep children from getting to school every day, student attendance improves and achievement rises.
What can philanthropy do to reduce chronic absence? Below are a few examples of actions you can take.
- Build public awareness. This includes supporting a public messaging campaign to convey that every school day counts. See these key messages and promotional materials.
- Join with your elected officials or state education leaders to encourage an appropriate existing coalition with an aligned mission to help spearhead a community-wide approach to reducing chronic absence. Encourage your superintendent to sign the Superintendents Call to Action and to “drive” with data to understand the problem and help inform solutions. See if your community is involved with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and if so, help support the Campaign.
- Promote data-driven solutions. Fund an in-depth analysis of chronic absence that shows the prevalence and patterns of chronic absence in your community or state.
- Support professional development to equip schools and community partners to reduce chronic absence.
- Use chronic absence to inform your foundation’s investments in childcare, early education, summer and afterschool programs.
- Encourage grantees to use reduced chronic absence and improved attendance as metrics for measuring success.
It’s important to remember that chronic absence is a problem we can solve. We can build a strong culture of attendance in every community. We can ensure that school districts are tracking the right data to identify the students and schools headed off track. And we can lend our voices and devote our resources to addressing the challenges that keep too many students from getting to school!
Learn more in our Case Statement: Why Attendance Matters for Philanthropy, on our website.