Sept. 17, 2013
This month is labeled the first-ever “Attendance Awareness Month” by the advocacy group Attendance Works, and there is plenty to which we ought to be paying attention. A 2008 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) estimated that one out of every 10 children nationally is chronically absent (meaning he misses at least 10 percent of scheduled days) in his first two years of school. On the state and local level, things can be even grimmer: almost 20 percent of students in Hawaii are chronically absent.More importantly, though, a growing field of study links chronic absenteeism in the early years to diminished academic outcomes in later grades, leading to an increased likelihood of both lower test scores and dropping out before graduation. The NCCP study finds, for example, that chronic absenteeism in kindergarten is associated with lower academic performance in first grade.And another recent report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) pulls our attention even earlier, focusing on chronic absenteeism in pre-K and its associations with lower-kindergarten preparedness, increased likelihood of future absenteeism, and diminished student achievement in higher grades.The study tracked pre-K attendance patterns and outcomes from 2008 to 2012 in four types of preschool programs housed within Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which together served approximately 25,000 children per year. The researchers found that 45 percent of 3-year-olds and 36 percent of 4-year-olds were chronically absent from their preschool program in the 2011-12 school year. Those rates are more than three times NCCP’s national estimate for chronic early absenteeism, as well as significantly higher than the rate for these same and similar CPS students in kindergarten. That means absenteeism is not only prevalent, but actually even more severe, in the pre-K years. Worse yet, African-American students were more than twice as likely as other children to be chronically absent in preschool; Latino children and those living in higher-poverty neighborhoods were also absent at higher rates than the general population.
The CCSR study found that, similar to absences in higher grades, chronic absenteeism negatively affected children even in the pre-K years. Kids who were chronically absent in preschool had lower scores on kindergarten preparedness measures at the end of the year and were five times as likely to be chronically absent in second grade. Those who were chronically absent for multiple years score significantly lower on reading tests at the end of second grade.
Importantly, the relationship between chronic absenteeism and diminished kindergarten preparedness skills was even stronger for at-risk children. An average child with low skills upon pre-K entry fell even farther behind on several of those measures as compared to an initially highly skilled peer, even if both were chronically absent and missed the same number of days. The differential negative impact of chronic absenteeism on children with low initial skills is compounded because these children are more likely to be chronically absent and therefore miss more days of school. That absenteeism gap mirrors the growing achievement gap for these groups in the early grades and may even be a factor in its expansion.
So why were these children absent in the first place? To answer this question, the researchers had teachers track a subset of the children in dozens of classrooms over nine weeks and log the reasons behind each absence.
Health problems and logistical reasons that affected either the students or their families were by far the most common reported reasons for students’ absences. Over half of absences were due to a student illness, while another 18 percent included other logistical challenges affecting the family, such as finding transportation, arranging child care, or resolving an issue with another family member that caused a conflict. The half-day schedule of preschool programs was a major contributor to the pre-kindergartners’ chronic absenteeism, because it required parents and family members to find transportation to and from the programs midday, as well as child care for the hours outside of preschool.
The implications for policy are clear: a child’s presence in the classroom is necessary. Proposed legislation in President Obama’s budget to expand pre-K programs to children from low- and moderate-income backgrounds nationally, for example, may not see its full potential to improve student outcomes realized if it does not address non-school issues and lead to full-day programs. In the CCSR study, the teachers’ logs of student absences are proof that life’s daily challenges impacted parents’ ability to ensure their children’s attendance at these programs. The CCSR study points to improved healthcare services for students and their families as one major policy lever that could help reduce chronic preschool absenteeism.
Other intriguing policies such as the federal Promise Neighborhood initiative do address the non-educational needs of students and their parents by providing additional wraparound services, such as healthcare and counseling, while still being school-centered. But with a relatively small budget to start, sequestration has layered on additional challenges for the grantees. Funding levels for new initiatives and the number of planning and implementation grants in 2013 and beyond are unspecified. Teachers, preschool directors, and policymakers may need to get creative to find new solutions to the absenteeism problem.