Ninety percent of school districts nationwide are affected by chronic absenteeism, but half of our nation’s chronically absent students are in just 4 percent of school districts. That’s according to Preventing Missed Opportunity, a study of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Data Collection released by Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center.
The report found that chronic absence was an issue in urban, suburban and rural school districts. But all of the districts had one thing in common: poverty. “What’s clear from our analysis is that chronic absenteeism follows poverty wherever it is found in significant concentrations,” said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who leads the Everyone Graduates Center.
The places with the greatest rates of chronic absenteeism are impacted by multiple factors that make it harder to attend school: substandard housing, exposure to industrial and automotive pollutants—both of which drive higher rates of asthma—limited health and dental care, food insecurity, evictions and greater exposure to violence. This finding underscores the importance of a multi-sector response to chronic absenteeism.
While the data from the Office for Civil Rights allows us to gain an understanding of the scale, scope and concentration of chronic absence across the U.S., it is just a starting point. States and school districts should do their own analyses to reflect real-time data and allow for a more in-depth examination of attendance patterns. Virtually all districts and most states already collect the data needed for monitoring chronic absenteeism. This existing data is a treasure trove that could be used to inform decisions about when and where to invest the resources, such as health services, public transportation, volunteer services, afterschool programming or preschools.
“Leaders can use chronic absence data to engage students, families, community organizations and government agencies in unpacking barriers to getting to school and crafting solutions,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. “The federal Every Student Succeeds Act offers a critical opportunity for building chronic absence into the school accountability systems used to measure progress and identify where additional support is needed to improve student performance.”
The data released by the Office for Civil Rights confirms what we already know: Chronic absenteeism is a national crisis. This new report underscores that now we must work with communities to help them use the data they have to combat this crisis. We already know there are strategies that work to address this problem and that other sectors, including health, are well positioned to do just that. In terms of the health-related causes of chronic absenteeism, local public health data, hospital data and school health card data can go a long way in helping schools understand the causes and determine ways to help reduce them.
You can learn more about strategies for addressing the health-related causes of chronic absenteeism in Addressing the Health-Related Causes of Chronic Absenteeism: A Toolkit for Action.
We commend our partners at Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center for releasing this important report, and we look forward to working with them and others across the country to support stakeholders in addressing chronic absenteeism.