Kalman Hettleman: School policymakers need to attend more to attendance

This column was co-written by Sue Fothergill, a Baltimore-based senior fellow with the national organization Attendance Works and a longtime advocate for school reform, nationally and in Maryland. 

As the old saying goes, 90% of success in life comes from just showing up. For proof, look no farther than the devastating effect of absenteeism in kindergarten and the early grades on a child’s chance to succeed in school.

In fact, chronic absenteeism in all grades — usually defined as missing 10% or more of school days for any reason — is all over the news these days. Students of all ages are missing school at record rates, including in Maryland, where 31% of all students were chronically absent in 2023. In Maryland in 2022, an astounding 75% of schools reported chronic absenteeism rates of at least 20% of students in elementary and middle schools (and even higher in high school). .

Predictably, students who are economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities suffer the most.

The problem is even worse because so many parents are disillusioned and exiting from public (and private) schools altogether. Witness the quantum jump in home schooling.

And let’s dispose of the COVID alibi. It undoubtedly made things worse but the chronic absenteeism crisis existed before the pandemic.

The causes of chronic absenteeism are multiple and wide ranging. For younger children it can be their health, caregiver factors related to poverty, and the mistaken belief of many parents that missing time in prekindergarten and kindergarten won’t affect their child’s learning. As students go up the grade ladder, the reasons morph into “school aversion,” which can be triggered by anxiety and discouragement at being so far behind peers.

The leading national organization on absenteeism is Attendance Works, and Maryland has been one of the states in which it’s been most active. Its comprehensive Attendance Playbook, co-authored with the national think tank FutureEd, summarizes the major strategies to combat it. These include parent engagement, early warning systems and interventions, better health and mental health services and improved transportation.

Nonetheless, progress has been slow. National and state authorities cite lack of funding as a major barrier.

In the face of fiscal limitations, policymakers are beginning to focus on  reducing chronic absenteeism in the earliest grades, including prekindergarten and kindergarten. In Maryland nearly 35% of kindergarten students are chronically absent, and the wisdom of intervening the earlier the better is powerful.

Research shows that absenteeism in the early grades directly correlates with the failure to learn to read, as well as drop-out rates and juvenile delinquency. Kids who fall behind early rarely catch up. And the younger the school child, the better the chance that parents and educators will be able to influence attendance.

In Maryland, a priority for interventions in the early grades would dovetail with interim state schools superintendent Carey Wright’s signature literacy initiative. At a recent legislative hearing, she called the Maryland data on chronic absenteeism “alarming.”

Steps to reduce early absenteeism must begin with parent engagement. Public messaging should focus on the critical importance of daily attendance even for 4- and 5-year-olds. Problems with attendance must be detected early and families helped to avoid keeping their children home unnecessarily.

Where is this family support to come from? Feel-good stories tell of teachers who valiantly volunteer to knock on doors. Incentives to students and families often come out of teachers’ pockets. Nonetheless already over-tasked teachers can hardly be expected to do the job alone.

Research shows the effectiveness of earmarked professional staff, like school system pupil personnel workers who make home visits, offer parenting assistance, and connect families with community family support programs.

Maryland local school systems make valiant efforts. One example is Anne Arundel County. Its comprehensive efforts include cooperation of schools across the district, leadership from principals, use of data to spot patterns of absences, outreach to families by teachers and other school staff, and leveraging community schools’ resources.

Statewide, the dedication and ingenuity of local pupil services workers and attendance coordinators are remarkable. Some are aided by Concentric Educational Solutions a Baltimore-based national leader that works closely with the city and Baltimore County and provides paid workers who visit homes and connect parents and schools.

Many local school systems create attendance committees that team up inter-disciplinary staff from within the school, sometimes along with outside community agencies.  But such efforts are catch as catch can, and home visitor programs are particularly costly.

The shortage of funding affects truancy courts. Maryland has potentially effective problem-solving pilot  programs in about one-third of local court systems. A bill pending in the General Assembly sponsored by Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) seeks to expand the initiative, and the pilots should be better funded.

Still, truancy referrals result in civil and criminal procedures that are difficult to navigate, and about five times as many students are defined as chronically absent than truant.

The Maryland State Department of Education must step up with standards for effective programs, technical assistance, and robust data collection. Connecticut is a leading model which removes truancy from juvenile courts altogether while providing strong support for family, school and community interventions.

At the same time, federal aid is critical. Even under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, funding for absenteeism programs is slighted.

In the final analysis, there is no simple way to reduce chronic absenteeism, especially since it is so linked to economic and social problems at home and in the community. But progress is doable, especially if the early grades are a priority.

Our policymakers need to attend to the vital task ahead.

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