As more schools than ever are being held accountable for reducing chronic absence, a new book provides insight into strategies that work and what we can learn from them. It also examines some of the challenges schools, districts and states might be facing as they implement plans to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The book, Absent from School: Understanding and Addressing Student Absenteeism, is a collection of chapters by researchers from across the country. Edited by Michael Gottfried, Associate Professor at UC Santa Barbara, and Ethan Hutt, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park, the chapters look at three topic areas: measuring attendance, policies and programs that can improve attendance, and interventions designed to encourage students to be in school every day.
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have included chronic absence in their school improvement plans. The decision by so many states to assess school performance based on absenteeism relies on two assumptions: states have effective measures of absenteeism by which to judge schools; and schools have the means and capacity to reduce students’ absence, Gottfried and Hutt say.
“Our book tackles these assumptions head-on, taking a step back and taking stock of what we know from the research that addresses absenteeism so that we might best support the efforts of policy makers and schools to measure and reduce absences,” Gottfried says.
Can schools move the needle on chronic absence?
The authors take an in-depth look at approaches that have successfully reduced chronic absence. These include mentoring students, school buses as transportation and texting parents. While the chapters detail how the approach operated, Gottfried encourages readers to consider the underlying issues each strategy was designed to address.
The chapter on school buses, for example, shows that bussing students to school can improve attendance. Schools that can’t afford buses can help families develop a system that mimics the aspects of bussing. “If you can’t buy a bus, you can look for some way to organize families to get to school together (i.e., walking school bus), or help families develop routines to get to school in the morning, Gottfried says. Why did the mentoring program work? The school worked with community partners who could come into the school and mentor students, he adds.
Gottfried encourages schools to consider their existing resources when developing plans to address barriers to being in class. “I don’t want schools to think they need to buy something new to address chronic absence. Perhaps schools can coordinate a dental service to get a van in every month, for example. What levers can your school take that rely on the human resources and physical resources that already exist?” he says.
Gottfried and Hutt found a number of trends running through the chapters. In particular, the authors made it clear that schools must partner with families and with communities to address barriers to getting to school. “We found that people who would typically be expected to solve this problem alone shouldn’t do it alone,” Gottfried says. One chapter discusses the power of shifting away from blaming families and instead leveraging the relationship schools can develop with families. This issue is more challenging in schools in low-income communities, where parents might be disengaged from school for a variety of reasons, Gottfried says.
Gottfried and Hutt also found the chapters support the idea that schools need to focus on the transitional years. “We found there was a lot of overlap in the things people were talking about in kindergarten and the things they were talking about in 9th grade,” he says. The teachers in these grades need to help kids get used to a new school environment. The recommendations for improving attendance were also similar for schools in kindergarten and early high school.
Something for everyone
Gottfried says the book is written for educators, administrators and other practitioners, policy makers and researchers. “We think there are different take-aways for each group, and that everyone will find something useful in the book,” he says. The book is also a primer suggesting areas of research into chronic absenteeism that can appeal to individuals researching policy, education and human development. “We think students will find this to be a useful tool, especially for someone who is still in school or is working on scholastic research, Gottfried says.
Absent from School: Understanding and Addressing Student Absenteeism, Edited by Michael A. Gottfried and Ethan L. Hutt, is available from Harvard Education Press. Find it here.