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Parents Play Critical Role in Preventing Chronic Absenteeism

Michael Nutter

May 30, 2018

New research highlights the remarkable power of keeping parents of chronically absent students engaged and in the loop.

According to data released by the Department of Education in April, nearly eight million students were “chronically absent” from American public schools during the 2015-2016 academic year. This means that roughly one out of every six students missed 10% or more of the school year, an attendance pattern that can lead to everything from higher probability of dropout for the student to tremendous costs for the school district.

Luckily, schools around the nation are mobilizing to take stock of this widespread problem. Education think tank FutureEd reports that 36 states and the District of Columbia have included some measure of chronic absenteeism in their ESSA accountability plans. In Ohio, where the chronic absenteeism rate was 19% for the 2015-2016 academic year, the state Department of Education is aiming to reduce chronic absenteeism by 3% each year until the statewide rate falls below 5%.

Achieving such reductions can be both challenging and costly, but new research published in Nature Human Behaviour outlines an approach that’s both effective and affordable.

Leveraging Information-Sharing to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism

Conducted in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia (the eighth-largest district in the country), the research set out to explore whether expanding communication with parents helps reduce a district’s rate of chronic absenteeism.

The researchers sorted the parents of 32,437 households into either one of three “treatment conditions” or a control group. Parents receiving the “Reminder” treatment were periodically informed of the importance of good attendance and their critical role in supporting it. Those receiving the “Total Absences” treatment were periodically provided with a tally of their student’s absences for the year, as well as the information provided in the “Reminder” treatment. Finally, parents receiving the “Relative Absences” treatment were provided with all of the information included in the “Total Absences” treatment, as well as the average number of absences among their student’s classmates.

Ultimately, the “Total Absences” treatment proved most effective, reducing chronic absenteeism by 10% over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year. According to the researchers, this treatment was so effective because it addressed a major contributing factor to chronic absenteeism: a lack of parent awareness.

As summarized in the study, “A survey of parents of high-absence students in [the] district showed that parents underestimate their own students’ absences by a factor of two (9.6 estimated absences vs. 17.8 actual absences).” The periodic reminders provided by the “Total Absences” treatment corrected this underestimation, inspiring many parents to take a more active role in ensuring their students regularly attended school.

What’s more, the cost of the “Total Absences” treatment came in at just $6.60 per household, amounting to a “price” of about $6.00 per additional day of attendance. For context, a mentorship program piloted by the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research that reduced chronic absenteeism by an average of 3.4 days per year cost roughly $1,700 per household — an unsustainable $500 per additional day of attendance.

The Importance of Data

Interventions like the “Total Absences” treatment hold immense promise in the fight against chronic absenteeism, but they will be impossible to execute at scale without reliable student data.

Ohio districts hoping to replicate the researchers’ success need tools for navigating EMIS reporting that facilitate — not hamper — the organization, interpretation, and validation of data related to chronic absenteeism. Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS platform is designed to help superintendents and district treasurers keep track of all of their critical data, laying the groundwork for targeted communications like the “Total Absences” treatment.

Everyone loses when chronic absenteeism goes unchecked, but CheckPoint provides stakeholders with the tools they need to ensure that every student succeeds.

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