Education’s Greatest Challenge is Chronic Absenteeism

More than 6 million students nationwide missed at least 15 days of school in the 2013-14 school year, according to data collection by the U.S. Department of Education released last week. Missed school days are a predictor of high school dropout, which has been linked to poor outcomes later in life, including poverty, poor health and involvement with the criminal justice system. This is the first-ever comprehensive data collected on absenteeism and it’s a telling look into an issue many school administrators are grappling with.


While the focus on education has mainly centered on increasing test scores and improving school performance, absenteeism remains a huge challenge. It is hard for teachers to teach a student who is frequently gone. Plus, there is the challenge of designing a catch-all intervention for a group of chronically absent students when each student may have a different barrier to their attendance.


While there have traditionally been ways that schools have dealt with absences, including fines and legal consequences for juveniles and parents, the obstacles hindering students’ attendance is the root of the problem that needs to be addressed. And at first glance, those obstacles often have nothing to do with education. Transportation, lack of support at home, homelessness, chronic health issues, responsibility to financially provide for their family and many other reasons are what keeps kids from attending school regularly. Therefore, we need new and creative ways to remove those barriers for students.


The White House and the U.S. Department of Education have been promoting cross-sector systems of support for students, particularly a mentorship program called My Brother’s Keeper that is designed to reach the most vulnerable students. A parent engagement campaign was also launched last February to improve school attendance. In the MBK program, school-linked personnel serve as trained advocates to 3-5 students. They aim to form supportive relationships, identify and celebrate student’s strengths, promote their attendance every day, and connect them with the necessary supports to keep them on track and thriving.


In addition to MBK, there are other programs that traditionally fall outside education that have shown to also have an impact on school attendance. Initiatives that address chronic health problems are one such example. An asthma home remediation program that removes irritants from children’s homes helps to improve or prevent their asthma symptoms and as a result, students’ number of missed school days decreases. The Center for Health Advancement’s Win-Win Project modeled the impact of an asthma home remediation program in Philadelphia and found that if implemented, there would be approximately 324,000 fewer days of missed school for low-income students with asthma every year. Transportation interventions have also been shown to have a positive impact on attendance. A study in Minnesota found that when students that lived more than 2 miles from school or were eligible for free or reduced lunch were provided with free public transportation passes, their absenteeism was reduced by 23%. Other interventions have been shown to improve high school graduation, such as a functional family therapy program for juvenile offenders. The Win-Win Project found that if implemented in Houston, the program would result in 42 additional high school graduates.


School administrators can’t fix chronic absenteeism alone. We need to address the non-academic needs of students before we can expect them to excel – or even show up – to classes. Cross-sector collaboration between education, public health, juvenile justice and other sectors is required to address and mitigate the challenges our children face.

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