Chronic absenteeism is more than just a number collected to fulfil bureaucratic requirements, and on closer examination can uncover sobering truths about the state of a community and the impacts of federal and state level policies.
For the first time, national data on absenteeism has been collected and published on chronic absenteeism by the U.S Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), revealing that 13% of students in the nation miss 3 or more weeks of school, impacting their chances of graduating.
The report ‘Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence’ combines OCR data with Census Bureau statistics and data from the National Center for Education Statistics and finds that chronic absenteeism is a highly concentrated issue with half of chronically absent students located in 12% of the nation’s schools. The paper also concludes that chronic absenteeism follows poverty, and economic and social isolation, intergenerational poverty and residential segregation magnify the issue.
“The magnitude of the problem also offers us clues about what types of barriers to attendance students face. When a large number of students and families are affected, the challenges tend to be more systemic in nature and frequently require solutions that involve a combination of school and community practices and resources to resolve”.
Among numerous strategies to ensure that the collection of data on chronic absenteeism is accurate, a key recommendation is the need to determine a common definition of the term in itself to better detect attendance problems and to undertake a community education campaign on the issue. The authors advocate for chronic absenteeism to be defined as:
“… missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason whether the absence is excused, unexcused or due to suspensions”.
This definition, it is argued, promotes early identification, allows school attendance of those students who move frequently to be monitored and offers data that can be compared across states and varying lengths of school years.
A multi-tiered system of support to more effectively determine the students, who require more support, is recommended by the authors. Under the model, all students missing less than 5% of school would be able to access a basic level of support to remove barriers to attendance such as creating a welcoming atmosphere, school health programs and assistance with uniforms, especially for those schools with higher rates of students in poverty. Students who miss 10-20% of school should have access to home visits and individualized action plans, with those students who miss more than 20% receiving intensive case management with cross-coordinated responses as needed.
Understanding the levels of absenteeism in a community at any given time presents the opportunity for government at all levels to adequately allocate resources and develop responses to broader issues impacting the community.
The nature of data collection by the OCR means that when it is released, it is already two years old. States, school districts and teachers can however, utilize the real time data collected everyday to examine attendance patterns. The paper suggests that:
“This existing data is a treasure trove that could be used to inform decisions about when and where to invest the resources, such as health services, public transportation, volunteer services, afterschool programming or preschools.”
A full copy of the paper is available online.