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Why chronic absenteeism is so high—and how district leaders can start fixing it

May 8, 2023 , By Jake Nelson, Research Analyst

The national chronic absenteeism rate has skyrocketed since the pandemic, from 16% in 2019 to an estimated 33% in 2022. This is the highest rate since the U.S. Department of Education released its first national measurement of chronic absenteeism in 2016.

Chronically absent students are more likely than their peers with good attendance to face reading difficulties by third grade and less likely to earn a high school diploma. Add to this the potential to harm their classmates’ academic outcomes, and it’s no surprise that 76% of superintendents say they are concerned about chronic absenteeism on EAB’s 2023 Voice of the Superintendent survey.

District support systems—built for a world with substantially fewer chronically absent students—are increasingly overwhelmed and struggling to provide intensive support to students in need. With average daily attendance and ESSER funding declining through the next few years, districts will have to do more with less if they want to get chronic absenteeism under control; doing so requires identifying why this problem has grown out of control in the first place.

Three ways chronic absenteeism is a different problem today

In the past, discussions of absenteeism typically focused on material barriers to attendance–obstacles that prevent families from getting to school even when they want to be there. Many of these barriers, like transportation issues, are impacting even more students now than before the pandemic, but the growth in absenteeism across all demographics suggests there’s more at play than material barriers preventing students from being in school.

No demographic group avoids increased rates of absenteeism

Percentage increase in the average of chronic absenteeism rates, 2019 to 2022

From interviewing and surveying 150+ district administrators, building leaders, and support staff, EAB surfaced three primary causes behind the recent spike in absenteeism, all of which districts are struggling to address, if at all.

1. Parents see less value in in-person attendance

The pandemic shift to remote instruction and continued availability of online classroom materials has led many families to believe that students can get the same value from school regardless of how often they’re on campus. In the same period, districts repeatedly emphasized the necessity of staying home—even if students wanted to be there—leaving many families skeptical of districts’ abrupt messaging shift toward the value of in-person instruction.

As a result, parents and guardians are more likely to rationalize their students’ absences for any number of growing mental health, physical health, and safety concerns.

2. Students aren’t motivated to come to school (and more have the option to skip)

When students feel capable of success, connected to others, supported through their challenges, and engaged in activities outside of class, they’re more likely to come to school daily. They also need to understand how their classes connect to their life after high school, otherwise, they won’t see the point of working through academic and socioemotional issues.

But after three years of pandemic disruption and a rocky recovery in many districts, most students today feel that school is stressful, lonely, boring, and unimportant. Further, more students can access sufficient class materials online, allowing them to skip school when they don’t see the benefits of being there.

Students largely do not feel…

3. Teachers remain unsure and underutilized in combatting absenteeism

Research shows that teachers have an outsized impact on their students’ attendance compared to other adults in the building. What’s more, parents overwhelmingly prefer to hear about the importance of attendance from teachers over other sources, including principals and counselors.

Teachers are key to student motivations and parent attitudes

Average attendance increased by four days in schools where students say teachers:

  • Invite students to participate in class
  • Treat all students fairly
  • Give personal support when needed
  • Encourage students’ future goals

Yet even as specialized support staff struggle to keep up with the influx of chronically absent students, most teachers continue to feel their attendance responsibilities begin and end with a headcount at the start of each day. Even when they want to reach out to families about attendance, most teachers aren’t sure where to begin or what to say.

What every district must do to reduce chronic absenteeism at scale

To address these three problems and support chronically absent students in returning to school, districts must meet three conditions: parents know why and when to bring their students to school, students can and want to come to school, and teachers understand and embrace their influence over student attendance.

Click through each condition to explore examples of best practices for achieving them.

Condition #1: Parents know why and when to bring their students to school

Example practice: “How Can We Help” Text Messages

How It Works: Send personalized multiple-choice text messages to families in response to a student’s first, second, or third absence, prompting parents to choose the support their child needs to return to school.

Why It Works: Parents tend to view text messages as a more accessible and personal communication channel than phone or email and are more likely to respond when given a clear list of actionable options for support.

How to Get Started: Source options for service ideas from staff with a stake in absenteeism (e.g., counseling, health services, operations/transportation, etc.).

Condition #2: Students can and want to come to school

Example practice: Positive Relationship Mapping

How It Works: Ensure every student has at least one trusted adult in the building who checks in with them.

Why It Works: Students who feel connected to an adult at school show a higher interest in learning and better mental health than their unconnected peers, making them more likely to show up.

How to Get Started: Convene staff and complete a Relationship Mapping exercise to assign or solicit a “trusted adult” for each student. Instruct trusted adults to identify attendance challenges and connect students to support.

Condition #3: Teachers understand and embrace their influence over student attendance

Example practice: Teacher Talking Points for Conversations About Absences

How It Works: Help teachers become experts on attendance by disseminating a list of talking points for discussing absenteeism with families. Regularly review the guide during team meetings to discuss common pitfalls, solutions, and revisions.

Why It Works: Frequent, proactive touchpoints from teachers—families’ most trusted source when discussing attendance—helps build trust with parents and makes students less likely to skip school. Referring to the talking points makes the expectation easier for teachers and reinforces a consistent attendance narrative across grade levels.

How to Get Started:  Look for EAB’s Best-Practice Guide for Discussing Absenteeism coming in summer 2023.

Look forward to virtual presentations of this research across the summer of 2023.

Jake Nelson

Jake Nelson

Jake joined EAB in June 2019 and has since worked in both service-delivery and commercial roles. In October 2020, he joined the Market Insights research team, where he uses labor market and competitive landscape research to guide academic programming decisions. Prior to joining EAB, Jake worked in various educational, governmental, and non-profit institutions in California, New York, and China.

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