While it’s a truism that kids can’t learn when they’re not in school, historically chronic absenteeism hasn’t gotten much attention in the broader debate over how to improve outcomes for students. That’s beginning to change, in part thanks to some first-rate reporting on the issue, including by the Chicago Tribune and The Oregonian, among others. The Attendance Works report makes it clear: This is fertile territory for education reporters to explore not just as an investigative project, but in their daily coverage of the nation’s public schools.
At the same time, the report’s authors are careful to emphasize that this is a community problem, and not just a school problem, and the solutions will require significant effort by educators, families, and the students themselves. (New York City’s recent successes are one example.)
Among the key findings: Students of color and those from low-income families are more likely to miss school than their more affluent, white classmates. The absences for poor and minority students are often tied to health factors such as asthma, dental problems, learning disabilities, as well as emotional issues tied to trauma and community violence, according to the report. In the fourth and eighth grades, the widest gaps in attendance rates between poor students and their affluent peers were found in Connecticut, Hawaii, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.
Asthma rates are higher among some children of color and those coming from low-income families, who often reside in substandard housing where mold, insect droppings and other health triggers are more prevalent, said Rochelle Davis, president of the Healthy Schools Campaign. Parents often opt to keep younger children home on days when an asthma attack seems likely.
In its coverage of the new report, Southern California Public Radio highlighted interventions to help remedy this situation:
The Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA) sends community health workers into children’s homes to teach parents how to eliminate mold, cockroach infestations and other suspected asthma triggers. LBACA reports that nearly three-quarters of children who missed school before enrolling in its program had not missed school at the six-month follow-up.
One key issue to consider when it comes to absenteeism is how little national data exists on how frequently kids—from all socioeconomic and racial groups—are skipping class, and whether those absences are considered “excused” or “unexcused” by the schools.
Up to now, researchers have relied on smaller studies and gleaning information from schools, districts, and states. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given to a representative sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students, also asks them to report how often they missed school in the prior 30 days, and Attendance Works has used that data in its reports.