Common Sense: Attendance Matters

Hedy ChangHedy Chang is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in Educational Excellence for African Americans.


I am thrilled and honored be selected as a White House Champion of Change for my efforts with Attendance Works to reduce chronic absence. The truth is Ralph Smith, my mentor and the managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, was the inspiration for this work and deserves equal credit. Seven years ago, he asked me to examine, on behalf of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, whether missing too much school in the early grades was one of the reasons so few low-income children were reading proficiently by the end of the third grade. He knew that kids who don’t reach this benchmark are much less likely to graduate from high school because by fourth grade they start falling rapidly behind because they can’t read in order to learn.

So what did we find? Our research confirmed what we know from common sense: attendance matters. Chronically absent students – those who miss ten percent or nearly a month of school – do worse academically. We also learned poor attendance is a huge problem that starts much earlier than middle and high school. One in ten kindergarten and first grade students nationwide miss nearly a month of school each year. In some cities, the rate is as high as one in four elementary students. In some schools, chronic absence affects fifty percent of all of the students!! Large numbers of children who are chronically absent results in less learning for everyone.

Children in poverty are four times more likely to be chronically absent than their more affluent peers. They also suffer the most academically because they lack the resources to make up for the time they missed in the classroom. They are also likely to face challenges like unstable housing, poor health and nutrition, and unsafe neighborhoods that lead to multiple years of chronic absence. Chronic absence is disproportionately high among young African Americans and other children of color who are more likely to live in poor, environmentally-challenged, low-income neighborhoods with high levels of community violence.

What motivates me to be a passionate advocate for change is the realization that most schools and communities don’t even know they have a problem in the first place. Too often, absences aren’t seen as a problem as long as they’re excused, or schools and families only worry when a child misses several days in a row and fail to recognize the cumulative impact of missing a day every couple weeks. Data can help identify which students are at risk. If large numbers of students are affected, it could be an indicator of a systemic community issue, like high rates of asthma or the lack of safe paths to school. It could also signal a serious school problem, such as a lack of engaging and meaningful instruction or unwarranted suspensions pushing young people out of the classroom. Insights from students, families, teachers, social workers, and nurses can help clarify why students are not showing up to class and what programmatic solutions are needed to improve attendance. Yet, currently, no federal and very few state laws require schools to track and report on chronic absence. We are turning a blind eye to an enormous problem and losing out on an opportunity to close the achievement gap.

In 2010, I launched Attendance Works, to ensure schools and communities use attendance data to intervene early before absences result in academic and behavioral challenges that are much harder to ameliorate. The good news is that chronic absence is a solvable problem. The key is for schools, community agencies, and families to work together to: a) build a habit and a culture of regular attendance; b) use data to monitor when chronic absence is a problem; and c) identify and solve barriers to getting children to school. We can turn chronic absence around by making it a priority, driving with data, and using positive supports rather than punitive action to engage families and students in showing up to school.

Hedy Chang directs Attendance Works

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