How Do We Get Kids Back in School?

An Interview with Phyllis Jordan

How do we get kids back in school?

In the wake of the pandemic, the percentage of kids who were considered chronically absent—who missed 10% or more of the school year for any reason—nearly doubled. Those rates have come down somewhat as the immediate health crisis recedes, but they remain extraordinarily high, especially in large urban areas.

So what can schools do to re-engage students? To make school a place where kids want to come? And to re-build strong attendance habits?

I spoke with Phyllis Jordan to find out. Phyllis has been working on attendance issues for a decade now, and she was the lead author of the FutureEd Attendance Playbook. The Playbook pulls together 27 different strategies schools and districts have used to improve their attendance rates. It describes each strategy, evaluates the research and effectiveness behind the strategy, and offers tools and templates for any school or district leader who wants to implement it in their schools. I strongly recommend you check it out!

In the meantime, keep reading for a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Phyllis. We talk about what originally motivated her work on attendance, her favorite strategies for improving attendance, and what school and district leaders need to know about how to make their schools welcoming places for students.


Chad Aldeman: First, tell us what motivated you to write the Attendance Playbook.

Phyllis Jordan: I started out more than a decade ago working with Hedy Chang at Attendance Works. She was just getting started in outlining how chronic absenteeism is different from truancy and how you need to deal with it. Later I went to work for FutureEd, and one of the first projects we did there was to see what non-academic indicators states were including in their accountability rubrics required under ESSA. Chronic absenteeism was the non-academic indicator in at least 36 states and D.C.

My then-boss, FutureEd Director Tom Toch, said, “Why don’t we do something about solutions?” So I got with the team at Attendance Works, and we pulled together all the research we could find on evidence-based practices that bring kids back to school on a regular basis. In 2019, we published the Attendance Playbook. And then in 2020, after the pandemic hit, we realized we needed to update it because there were so many concerns about attendance, there were so many issues with virtual school, with PPE, with masks, and hand washing, so we did an updated version in 2020 that touched on all those pandemic-related issues.

By early 2023, we realized a lot of that was out of date, but that there were new concerns. What we saw over the course of the pandemic was this great increase in chronic absenteeism. Some of that was illness related. But a lot of it reflected disengagement and the fact that kids had broken the habit of going to school. For years kids got up in the morning, got dressed, and went to school. That didn’t happen in the pandemic, and that habit was broken, and schools needed to get the kids reengaged and back in the habit of going to school.

Aldeman: We’re going to dig into some of the specific practices that you have in the playbook later. But let’s start at the high level: What are some of the general lessons that you would give to school or district leaders who are concerned about their own attendance issues? How would they go about trying to improve attendance rates?

Jordan: The first thing I would say is don’t go punitive. I looked at all the research and I could not find a single study that showed a punitive approach to absenteeism was effective in improving attendance. Generally, it led to greater absenteeism, greater disengagement from school.

A better path is to figure out why kids aren’t coming to school, and then address those issues. There have always been barriers to kids getting to school. A lot of times these barriers are wrapped up in poverty; they’re things like lack of access to quality health care, unstable housing, unreliable transportation. You can sometimes address these issues by figuring out some other transportation mode, or helping families connect with housing, or providing health care at school. You can use the community schools model where you’re bringing services into the school which can help address some of the barriers.

Beyond barriers, there is this issue of engagement and disengagement. Basically schools need to make their buildings a place where kids want to come. They need to provide a safe and welcoming environment. They need to provide engaging curriculum. They need to make sure bullying is under control. They need to provide a great education, which is basically what schools should do anyway. All these things influence whether children show up regularly.

Aldeman: How did you go about creating the attendance playbook? What were you looking for? How did you cull the list of potential strategies that a school might adopt?

Jordan: We looked at all the research that we could find. And then we hired a researcher that was familiar with ESSA’s “tiers of evidence” definitions to evaluate whether the practice was truly evidence based.

We collected all the research we could and organized it into categories. We were then able to highlight the research on nudges, the research on home visits, the research on incentives, and so on. When the research was mixed, we said so.

For instance, we have a page about incentives. Incentives are all over the map on whether they are research-based, but we included a page about incentives because a lot of school districts use them. We tried to say, “Here’s what the research says,” and let readers take it or leave it. There are some places that have used money as incentives and that does seem to improve attendance. Other incentives were not as successful.

And then we wrote it up into a narrative with links to the research we used. We also included links to other resources, like templates to organize a home visit or something like that.

We tried to keep each description to two pages or less. We also include cautions of what to consider. For example, if a school is going to do home visits, they should be prepared to pay teachers and staffers for the extra time they put in.

There’s one intervention that we included which doesn’t have a lot of research but people swear by, and that’s putting washers and dryers in schools. A lot of kids, especially older kids, are embarrassed to come to school if they don’t have clean clothes. So schools have put washers and dryers in schools so families can do their laundry there. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that that’s a good solution. But there’s no research about it. We found one study by {the Whirlpool company}, but we didn’t count that one.

FutureEd’s Attendance Playbook pulls together 27 different strategies schools and districts have used to improve their attendance rates.

Aldeman: The next thing I want to ask about is how would you recommend schools or districts monitor their efforts to improve attendance? How can we ensure that chronic absenteeism isn’t just a “gotcha” data point at the end of the year but actually something that schools are watching throughout the year?

Jordan: The best solution is having an attendance team within the school that monitors what’s going on with students. A lot of high schools will monitor attendance, behavior, and course success to see where kids are every week or every couple of weeks. They’re using that team time to talk about students who are having a particular problem, letting teachers brainstorm about what to do, and keeping up with it.

A study out of Baltimore showed that kids who were chronically absent in the first month of school were more likely to be chronically absent all year long. It’s a leading indicator that schools can use to identify which students are at risk of having attendance problems. It’s possible to take constructive steps to nip attendance problems in the bud.

Aldeman: Now, I want to ask you about your favorites. By my count the report has 27 different strategies to improve attendance, but you must have a favorite or two. If you were in charge of improving attendance for a school or district, which strategy would you pick and try to implement?

Jordan: I’m really big on home visits. I feel like it’s such a constructive way to not only get kids back to school, but to also engage families in the life of the school.

Nudges have also been somewhat effective. That can take the form of sending notes to parents to say, “Hey, your kid has missed five days of school already, and the average for the class is only two.”

I also like simple things like greeting families and meeting students when they come to the school, or welcoming kids at the classroom door.

Having an engaging curriculum can also help. A recent study out of Texas showed that kids who were in a STEM career track are more likely to attend than kids who might be in the same classes but who weren’t in the STEM track. In California, kids who took an ethnic studies curriculum were more inclined to show up than other kids.

The last thing I’ll say is that I think there’s this tendency to want to bring down the hammer on kids who are missing a lot of school, but I think the best approach is to figure out why kids aren’t coming to school. If kids have something interesting to come to school for, if they feel like school is the place where their friends are, you’re likely going to get better attendance.

About Chad Aldeman

 

 

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

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