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Borrowed Brains: A Q&A with Hedy Chang of Attendance Works

By Dan Cardinali Oct. 1, 2014

In my recent New York Times op-ed discussing the problem of chronic absenteeism, I mentioned the “groundbreaking research compiled by Hedy Nai-Lin Chang” at Attendance Works. Those weren’t empty words. When space is tight, editors at the Times seek to cut everywhere they can, but I literally find it’s impossible to talk about absenteeism without mentioning Hedy.

No one has done more to help us understand and quantify the impact of absenteeism. Everyone assumes that kids should be present in the classroom, but Hedy insisted on gathering data to establish the empirical link between attendance and success. Beyond research, Hedy and her team have done more than anyone else to raise public consciousness of the issue, including Attendance Awareness Month, which ends today.

With all of that in mind, I’m honored that Hedy agreed to be our first guest for “Borrowed Brains,” a regular new feature on our blog.

Q: Let’s start with the big question: Is there any sign that we’re making progress in fighting chronic absenteeism?

A: Absolutely! While the concept of advancing student achievement by reducing chronic absence is still new, we are already starting to see results in schools, communities and districts that have taken a comprehensive, data driven approach to partnering with families to nurture a regular habit of attendance and addressing common barriers to getting to school. 

The What Works section of our website shares success stories nationwide, from Los Angeles, CA, to New Britain, CT. In New York, for instance, an evaluation by Johns Hopkins University of its Success Mentors program found that, compared to their peers, students served by the program not only had nine fewer days of absences, but also were more likely to still be in school three years later and maintain a C average.

And, we know there are more examples that we haven’t yet had the resources or the time to document. For example, I recently read that Hawaii has begun to achieve statewide reductions after including chronic absence as an accountability metric for school improvement and using its longitudinal student database to offer schools easy access to real time data on which students are at risk. We are looking forward to finding out more about on-the-ground practices that are making a difference.  

Q: You’ve said the causes of chronic absenteeism can be grouped into three categories: Myths (common misperceptions about attendance that inhibit families from ensuring students are in school every day starting in kindergarten or earlier); Aversion (when children are too afraid or discouraged to attend); and Barriers (transportation, poor health, etc.). Would you hazard a guess as to what percentage of chronic absences fall into each category?

Rather than hazard a guess, I challenge every school community to use data and insights from students and families to determine the extent to which Aversion and Barriers are preventing students from getting to school. All schools should make sure that students are not being turned off from school because of bullying, inappropriately harsh school discipline practices or the lack of engaging, effective teaching and instruction. Clearly, in low-income communities, poverty related challenges are much more likely to exist whether those are chronic illness related to lack of access to medical care or unhealthy environmental conditions, homelessness, unreliable transportation or community violence.

Myths may be harder to quantify, but we know they affect every community. While every family has hopes and dreams for their children to have a successful future, many do not realize that, starting in kindergarten or even preschool, just missing a couple days per month can result in so much lost instructional time that students fall behind. This is why reducing chronic absence is one of those rare opportunities where better messaging and communication can initially yield measurable results.

Finding out what keeps students from attending school every day is essential because it ensures schools and communities put in place solutions that will make a real difference. What keeps a particular student or group of students from getting to school or preschool can and will vary significantly by student, school and community. But, keeping these three categories in mind can help with identifying the biggest challenges for the largest numbers of students so appropriate programmatic interventions can be put in place.

The size and scale of the problem can also offer clues about the nature of the attendance challenges. Students and families with the most severe levels of absence often face multiple barriers to getting to class. If only a small number of students are chronically absent, then issues are more likely to be individual in nature. When chronic absence affects large numbers of students in a particular school or neighborhood, it is often an indication of more systemic challenges.

Q: The “Barriers” category strikes me as the one that teachers and principals are least equipped to deal with. Would you agree? And if it’s true, what’s the best solution?

A: Yes, it is true that many barriers are beyond the capacity of schools alone to address. This is why school-community partnerships are essential. Community partners can help the school unpack what are the likely barriers affecting the attendance for significant numbers of students as well as develop appropriate solutions. Data on chronic absence can help inform districts and their schools about where forging partnerships with community agencies are needed most.

Community agencies may have access to data on community health, safety, transportation, or other challenges that often correspond to high levels of chronic absence. Community agencies can also help draw upon the insights of families and students. If they offer case management services, they may be able to add questions about school attendance into their protocol. And, they can help schools conduct surveys and focus groups. In addition to offering expertise from other disciplines like social work, health or community organizing, these agencies can also offer perspective based upon their knowledge of the languages and the cultures of the families who make up the populations with the highest levels of chronic absence.

Community agencies and schools can then use data and their partnership to determine where existing services can be reallocated to address current barriers or work together to obtain new or additional resources to address unmet gaps. 

Q: Why don’t more community partnerships exist to reduce chronic absence?

A: A significant challenge is the lack of awareness among schools and communities about the extent to which chronic absence is a problem. Why does chronic absence go undetected even though most teachers take roll every day? First, most schools and districts have only been monitoring average daily attendance (how many students show up each day) and truancy (unexcused absences) rather than chronic absence (missing so much school for any reason that students are academically at risk). They do not realize that both average daily attendance and truancy can mask high levels of chronic absence. Second, chronic absence can be hard to notice if communities just rely upon teacher observation. Especially with increasingly large classes, teachers can easily overlook a child who is chronically absent, especially if absences are sporadic, occurring once every few weeks rather than all in a row. 

Fortunately,  most districts can now take advantage of their electronic data systems to track and monitor attendance though often some extra steps are needed to ensure their systems calculate chronic absence rates and generate the list of the students who are at risk due to missing too much school. Attendance Works offers free tools to help districts identify their chronically absent students and pinpoint which schools, grades, student populations are most affected. 

Community agencies should keep in mind, however, that even if districts have calculated their chronic absence rates, they might be reluctant to share. Sometimes districts are concerned about protecting confidentiality. They may not realize that sharing aggregate data on overall levels of chronic absence by grade, school, or student sub-population is not a violation of either FERPA or HIPPA as long as the number of students included is large enough to avoid attributing the data to an individual student. Districts may also be concerned about releasing the data because they are fearful that it will be used to cast blame rather than create the conditions for community stakeholders to partner effectively with schools to address barriers to attendance. These challenges, however, can be addressed when schools and community agencies sit down together to determine how they can best work together to reduce chronic absence.

Q: If you had all of our 2,000+ Site Coordinators sitting in front of you, what is the one thing you would want them to know about chronic absenteeism?

A: When I reflect upon everything I know about reducing chronic absence, I think the two most essential ingredients for improving attendance are data and caring relationships.  This understanding, drawn from what we see working across the country, is reflected in our newest toolkit, The Power of Positive Connections. It shares how schools and community partners can use absenteeism records from past years and from the first month of school to connect the most at-risk students to personal relationships and positive supports that motivate them to show up to class every day. It is a step-by-step guide to what we know works—reducing chronic absence through PEOPLE (Priority Early Outreach through Positive Linkages and Engagement).

I hope all site coordinators will leverage this resource. I am thrilled by the growing partnership with Community Schools and the potential it offers for us to combine our respective assets, resources and knowledge to ensure children throughout the United States are in school so they can benefit from our country’s important and growing investments in teaching and instruction.