Attendance Works developed 10 policy recommendations, and two immediate actions for the first 90 days, that lift up chronic absence data as a path towards improving educational equity. Read our memo for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s transition team:
Since our founding in 2010, Attendance Works successfully moved chronic absence from a little-known term to a required reporting and optional school accountability metric in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In California, Attendance Works worked closely with the Office of the Attorney General (when it was headed by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris) to build public awareness for taking a prevention oriented approach to improving school attendance and successfully made chronic absence data publicly available.
We applaud President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s goal of ensuring “no child’s education opportunity is determined by their zip code, parents’ income, race or disability.” The purpose of this memo is to share how the new administration can leverage chronic absence data to advance this deep commitment to educational equity for all young people and promote their access to learning and positive development whether school is offered in person, remotely or at a distance.
Why Monitoring Chronic Absence Matters
Prior to Covid-19, chronic absenteeism (commonly defined as missing 10% or more of school) was already identified as a major national crisis with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reporting that over 8 million of the nation’s children regularly miss enough school to be at academic risk. Early data from the 2020-21 school year suggests that the number of students missing significant amounts of school has dramatically increased. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened existing inequities and increased barriers to learning and development. Today tens of millions of children are losing out on learning and opportunities for positive development due in part to a lack of digital and personal connectivity, unstable housing, illness and trauma. The potential long-term impact of these worrisome trends, particularly for Black, Native American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/ Latinx and LBTGQ young people, and young people from low-income communities, is likely to be devastating without immediate intervention by the government at every level.
Research shows the clear benefits of regular school attendance, and the high cost related to chronic absenteeism, including students not being able to read by third grade and increased risk of students dropping out of high school. Chronic absence is a clear signal that particular students and families or a population of students and families are not being served well by current systems and need additional engagement and support. It can also indicate that a school, district or community is struggling to put in place positive conditions for learning (physical and emotional health and safety; a sense of belonging, connection and support; academic challenge and engagement; and adults and peers with social emotional competence).
Monitoring when students miss opportunities to learn and develop—whether offered in person or remotely—is an essential tool for strengthening the efforts of educators, community partners and families to reduce the adverse impact of Covid-19 on the country’s more than 55 million school children. Effective, preventative monitoring helps everyone to take action early to ensure students are reading, passing classes and graduating from high school. Knowing how many and which students have missed too much school informs current and future practice, investment strategies and policies.
Taking Data-Driven Action
In response to the increasing numbers of students who are absent and missing from school, federal policy makers can advance policies that promote student attendance, track participation and make available resources to reengage and reconnect with students who have missed a significant amount of school. (Click on the image at right) Specifically, the federal government is uniquely positioned, especially in this moment of crisis, to advance the following actions:
Promote Tracking Daily Attendance for All Students: Encourage states to require tracking daily attendance and to differentiate in student information systems whether absences occur during in-person, synchronous or asynchronous learning.
Expand Metrics for Early Warning and Intervention: Promote collection and reporting on metrics to ensure an equal opportunity to attend school, including adding data on the percent and number of students enrolled, with or without connectivity (i.e., access to the internet, broadband, computers, tablets). Support analysis of data patterns by school, grade and student subpopulation to identify which students are disproportionately impacted by a lack of connectivity.
Invest in Research and Data Systems: Engage in research and data analysis to determine which attendance metrics are associated with lower academic performance in distance or hybrid learning. Invest in technology to ensure the availability of meaningful and actionable attendance metrics that can be collected without undue burden to educators, given the need to integrate and visualize data across learning management and student information systems.
Promote Alternatives to Legal Action: Use federal guidance to promote a positive, problem-solving and systemic approach to reducing student absenteeism and not a punitive approach. Encourage legislative changes to truancy laws. Punitive responses disproportionately impact students based on race, class, and poverty and do not solve the problems that contribute to why students are missing school and can be especially harmful in this moment of crisis.
Promote the Use of Cross-Sector, Multi-Tiered Supports: Encourage state and local education agencies to establish early-warning indicators and guidance for action using a cross-sector (i.e., education, health, housing, justice) multi-tiered prevention and early intervention framework to reduce student absenteeism. Use the development of these supports as an opportunity to weave our youth-serving systems closer in order to effectively deliver whole child education, support positive development and reduce negative contact with systems.
Hold Harmless for Funding Based on Attendance or Enrollment: Calculate federal Title 1 dollars based on data gathered prior to the pandemic. School districts across the country have experienced significant drops in enrollment. The funding for the coming years will need to serve the student population that is going to show up, not the population that is struggling with accessing learning.
Refrain from High Stakes Accountability: Refrain from using chronic absence as an accountability metric until more research evidence is developed on attendance and absenteeism during in-person, distance or hybrid learning. The federal government should waive accountability requirements for the purposes of identifying schools for improvement for the 2020-21 school year, but still require that data be collected and reported so that we can understand the scale and scope of the impact on education that the pandemic has had.
Address Inequitable Access: Expand funding and partnerships to promote greater educational access, including eliminating technology gaps (i.e., lack of internet access, personal computers, tablets, digital literacy among families), ensuring access to high quality learning materials at home, and providing resources to support the safety, health and well-being of students and families.
Promote Interagency Collaboration and Coordination: Support and build the capacity for interagency collaboration and coordination across the federal government, particularly among cabinet agencies and other federal institutions that focus at least in part on the education, health, enfranchisement, and workforce readiness of young people. Such collaboration and coordination can lead to catalytic, systemic policy solutions—like that which led to the federal focus on chronic absence in ESSA—that helps states and local districts leverage important federal resources in their efforts to successfully engage and educate every young person.
Plan for Investment in Recovery: Student absenteeism and lost opportunity to learn have profoundly impacted the nation’s children, and disproportionately those who are most vulnerable. Prepare now to use chronic absence data along with other indicators to identify where the learning losses are occurring, and invest federal dollars into recovery and support efforts including tutoring, summer enrichment, 21st century community learning centers, community schools and school-based health services.
Action During the First 90 Days
During the first 90 days, the Biden Administration could advance the work with the following immediate steps:
Assess the Scale and Scope of Lost Learning Opportunities
Direct the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) and the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) to conduct short-term strategic data analysis to determine the scale and scope of lost learning time across all states and territories utilizing multiple measures of student attendance, participation and engagement, including reduction in enrollment, lost contact with families, and low levels of attendance and participation in hybrid, remote, and in-person schooling. Examine data to identify the disproportionate impact of Covid-19. Utilize findings from the research to direct resources and provide for policy and practices to support a coordinated response to improve the educational outcomes of children who were most vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19.
Insights could inform the work of a proposed new White House Office on Children and Youth, recommended by multiple organizations along with existing entities including the Interagency Council on Homelessness and Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs.
Issue Guidance, Direct Resources and Promote Research Based Practice
In response to the increasing number of students who are absent and missing from school, the Biden administration can advance policies that promote student attendance, track participation and make available resources to reengage students who have missed a significant amount of school. Specifically, the federal government is uniquely positioned, especially in this moment of crisis, to advance the following actions:
Given the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, measuring attendance and noticing which students are facing difficulties showing up for learning is more essential than ever. Such policies are paramount to reducing the adverse and disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on students and families and ensuring a positive, long-term recovery.