Tackling absenteeism in Chicago  

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Armed with solid data on student attendance, researchers and practitioners join forces to reduce absenteeism. 

 

Like many urban districts, Chicago faces a serious problem with chronic absenteeism: Almost half of high school students are chronically absent, missing at least 10% of the school year. Attendance affects more students, at more grade levels, and with more nuance than many realize. About half of Chicago’s preschool students are also chronically absent, with measurable effects on school readiness for the city’s youngest and most vulnerable students. Although absenteeism is most glaring for the youngest and oldest students, the problem pervades the district. Across grades, between 10% and 15% of elementary and middle grade students are chronically absent.  

For the past decade, the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute has been examining the prevalence, predictors, and consequences of absenteeism. Although this research has driven growing awareness of the importance of attendance throughout Chicago’s schools, the University of Chicago Charter School has embraced the findings with especial vigor. Not only is UChicago Charter implementing strategies that directly follow from the research findings, but also our two organizations are learning from each other as we use data to continuously refine strategies to address absenteeism. 

What research shows 

We began unpacking the relationship between attendance and course failure — and, ultimately, high school graduation — nearly 20 years ago, at a time when students in Chicago Public Schools were almost equally likely to drop out of high school as they were to graduate. Our initial finding was surprising in its simplicity: More predictive than any demographic factor — in fact, more predictive than all other factors combined, including race, gender, and poverty, as well as prior academic achievement — was course performance in the 9th grade. Freshmen who are on track, earning no more than one semester of an F in a core class, are nearly four times more likely than their off-track peers to graduate from high school. And, by far, the main driver of course failure was absences.  

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Avoiding course failures is crucial for staying on track for graduation, and attendance is crucial for avoiding course failures. Not failing is largely a function of consistently showing up. In fact, course attendance is eight times more predictive of course failure in the freshman year than 8th-grade test scores.  

The more we researched the issue, the more we understood the power of attendance — and the risks associated with even moderate levels of absence from school. Our research revealed that each week of absence per semester in 9th grade is associated with a more than 20% decline in the probability of graduating from high school. Yet one to two weeks of absence per semester is common among Chicago students. All it takes is some colds, some travel, a family emergency, and we can see how quickly the days add up — and they add up especially in the 9th grade. Students miss almost three times as many days of school in 9th grade as they did in 8th grade. We found that this dramatic increase in absenteeism is largely a result of the decrease in monitoring that accompanies the shift to 9th grade; it’s simply much easier to skip class. Expectations shift, and students are expected to take much greater personal responsibility. Students often confuse the responsibility of getting themselves to class with the freedom to choose whether or not to go. Our research has shown that once students fall behind, they tend to get embarrassed or frustrated and become even less likely to attend. 

Ninth grade is pivotal, but the importance of attendance doesn’t stop — or start — there. Absenteeism patterns emerge early in students’ careers: Roughly one-third of Chicago’s chronically absent 4-year-olds continue to be chronically absent in kindergarten. Students with poor attendance records in the middle grades are at an exceptionally high risk of falling off track during their freshman year of high school. Chronically absent middle schoolers have a 50% chance of veering off track in high school, and, without a dramatic change in their educational experience, these students have little chance of graduating.  

In response, the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success developed “risk and opportunity” reports for high schools, which detail the attendance and grade point average (GPA) patterns of their incoming freshmen. Because middle grade attendance and grades are so useful for identifying students’ risk of failing classes — and for identifying their chances of finishing high school ready for college — high school staff members can tailor the ways they’re monitoring and providing support to different groups of students. They can provide at-risk students with mentors, attendance buddies, or other supports to keep them from falling off track for high school graduation when they make the transition to 9th grade.  

Attendance matters for college success, too. Having the best possible chance at success in college demands a near-perfect high school attendance record. Again, this is largely due to the close link between attendance and grades. Strong grades — earning all A’s and B’s in high school — are the strongest indicator of college readiness, much more so than any test score. Strong grades indicate not only mastery of material but also academic skills, behaviors, and mindsets that can carry on into college, such as adhering to deadlines, seeking help, and having confidence. The students most likely to earn A’s and B’s in high school have middle school attendance rates of 98%, on average.  

Tackling absenteeism is intricately linked to a school’s family and community engagement strategy. 

Near-perfect attendance — 98% translates to about four days of absence over an entire school year — is a high threshold for any student or family. In Chicago, where more than 80% of students come from low-income families, many students face a host of systemic challenges that can affect attendance. Some students miss school because they can’t afford bus fare or don’t have a clean school uniform. Some are taking care of sick parents or other relatives; others face threats on the way to school or from classmates. Although many of these problems exist outside of the school, students will continually miss school and fall further behind if these issues are not addressed. Tackling absenteeism is intricately linked to a school’s family and community engagement strategy.  

The good news is that attendance is malleable and can be improved with a concerted focus on the school’s culture and climate. An environment in which teachers actively monitor attendance and engage with students to unearth the causes of absenteeism yields vastly different results from one in which teachers let students get by with skipping or missing school, sending the message that they don’t care and that attendance doesn’t matter. We’ve seen in research and from survey results that providing individualized attention on specific academic problems, regular progress updates, and clear instruction drives student engagement and stronger attendance. At the school level, our research shows that attendance improves when more teachers take collective responsibility for the academic success of all the students in the school — not just their own.  

What practice shows 

Based on the Consortium’s research, achieving a culture and climate that foster 98% attendance emerged as a key goal for our four UChicago Charter School campuses, which serve 1,800 students on Chicago’s south side. North Kenwood/Oakland and Donoghue serve preK through 5th graders, Carter G. Woodson serves 6th through 8th graders, and Woodlawn serves 6th through 12th graders.  

Efforts to improve attendance started with consistent communication. Teachers, parents, and students all hear a relentless drumbeat about the importance of attendance. Parents receive attendance reminders and statistics in newsletters;  students see graphs, charts, and other visual indicators that relay the importance of attendance throughout the school. Monitoring attendance is not solely the job of someone in the front office; every teacher plays a role. At one campus, each teacher receives a morning email noting which families they need to call. The campus director follows up to ensure each teacher has reached out to every family in question. 

At first, this full-court press approach met some resistance. Daily calls home felt like just another thing tacked on to teachers’ already sizable workloads. But once teachers saw how much influence they could have, they bought in. One especially relentless teacher has had notable success converting absences into tardies by encouraging families to bring students to class even if they’re late. Her success, noted at staff meetings, has encouraged other teachers to pursue attendance more aggressively.  

Perfect and near-perfect attendance are also celebrated and incentivized. After an illness-laden February, one campus placed additional emphasis on attendance in March and April, offering the classroom with the highest attendance a pizza party. Students can also earn individual prizes, such as tickets to sporting events or privileges like out-of-uniform days or admission to an “attenDANCE” dance. Students’ attendance success stories are also broadcast on social media and celebrated at assemblies, continually emphasizing the importance of the goal. Moreover, staff members note the successes of families who are overcoming obstacles, enthusiastically acknowledging them at drop-off when work schedules or transportation issues fail to stand in the way of on-time arrival. 

When attendance patterns indicate a family may be struggling, staff members, together with the family, explore the root causes of absences. For example, the mother of a student who was tardy nearly every day expressed frustration at how challenging it was to wake him up in the morning. School staff determined this was likely due to an unstructured nighttime routine in which the student was allowed to play on electronics long after the mother fell asleep. Staff members encouraged her to craft rules about screen time and followed up with her to see if the rules were making mornings easier. Her son’s increasingly on-time arrivals indicated they were.  

Still, attempting to translate the research on attendance into practice raises practical questions. For example, how do you encourage students to take on-time arrival seriously while also encouraging them to come to school even if they’ll be tardy? If the day begins with noncore classes, will students think it’s OK to be late? If the tardy policy is strict, will students more often skip the entire class period? Our research hasn’t yet delved into that level of detail, but we are seeing steady progress and notable outcomes that are worthy of future study. In our secondary school, Woodlawn, attendance doesn’t slip in the transition from middle school to high school, as was the pattern that emerged so strongly in the Consortium’s research on Chicago high schools. In the 2015-16 school year, one of our elementary campuses achieved 97% attendance, another campus was just one percentage point behind them, and every campus saw an improvement over the previous year.  

Delving into the data 

Despite our progress, we know that neither research nor practice alone is enough to confront the challenge of chronic absenteeism; we need to foster open and ongoing dialogue on what works to improve student attendance. In that spirit, our teams have been coming together for monthly data meetings dedicated to solving problems of practice related to student absenteeism. The practitioners among us get to probe the researchers for additional nuance and depth, and researchers get to hear which research findings are most enlightening, what points may need further explanation, and what kind of research will be most useful for practitioners as they move forward in their quest to improve student attendance. 

Attendees include some usual suspects — campus directors, counselors, and data analysts — but also some unusual ones, ranging from students to members of the UChicago Charter School’s governing board. This diversity of perspectives yields rich conversations and lively debate. Our meetings start with a review of week-by-week attendance data for all four UChicago Charter campuses. We dissect trends and probe anomalies. For example, days bordering holidays have low attendance, and days with testing have high attendance. We ponder potential implications for scheduling and messaging. If students understand that test days are important, how can we inspire that extra effort on normal days?  

In data meetings, students provide valuable and honest insights about what motivates them to get to school, such as avoiding detention, peer pressure, and clear expectations from teachers and administrators. Some of the most illuminating exchanges occur between the students in the data group and members of the charter school’s governing board. For example, after watching a series of slides that explored the rates at which high school students were achieving GPAs of 3.0 or better, a governing board member asked students, “How does seeing these data change the way you may think of attendance and GPAs?” The students’ responses were analytical and thoughtful: “What I think about is why it looks like that. Is it the teaching? Is it the students? Is it the amount of resources?” The students raised practical points, noting that 9th graders may be benefiting from a new after-school initiative, but juniors may be feeling the stress of the ACT college readiness assessment and Advanced Placement (AP) exams. They also prompted research questions, such as, “Have you accounted for how long students have been in this school?” and “Can we look at how students who’ve been on the UChicago Charter School ‘superhighway’ since elementary school did compared to incoming 9th graders who came from a different school?” 

The adults in the room listen intently and take the students’ advice to heart. Regardless of role, everyone stays in problem-solving mode and confronts hard questions: How do we engage students who struggle the most, like those who are repeating a grade? Are we aligning all our tools — scheduling, policies, communications — in a way that reflects what the data are telling us?  

Implications for policy and practice 

Our data team meetings and overall approach hinge on collecting and monitoring student attendance data. Schools need data-tracking systems that can provide timely, accurate, accessible, and actionable information, and staff members need dedicated collaboration time to reflect on and solve problems around data. Even the clearest research findings don’t move the needle for schools or students until they’re backed up by a strong data infrastructure and by teachers and leaders who are supported in interpreting and acting on the data.  

Chicago’s experience with improving freshman on-track rates is particularly illustrative. On-track rates didn’t budge until schools started receiving biweekly data from the district’s central office in simple spreadsheets that highlighted which students were at risk of falling off track. With data transparency and focused, supported effort, things changed. Gaining competency with understanding data and confidence in acting on them not only improved attendance and on-track rates but also enhanced collaboration and shifted Chicago’s education culture. A culture in which data were associated with documenting weaknesses shifted to one in which teachers used data to develop innovative strategies for improving students’ grades and attendance. It was true bottom-up improvement, driven by ideas that sprang forth from teacher team meetings, from hallway conversations, from breaking down the isolation that characterizes life in classrooms. Eventually, high schools across the city showed substantial improvements in freshman on-track and graduation rates, with some of the largest improvements at the noncharter, nonselective enrollment schools that serve students with the lowest levels of incoming achievement. Focusing on attendance — and tracking it systematically — can be the entry point to widespread and sustained school improvement.  

We’re still learning in the course of both our research and our daily practice. We’re still working out the kinks in our data team meetings to find the right attendees, pose the right questions, and arrive at the right action steps. But we know improvement depends on coming together: researchers learning from practitioners and practitioners learning from researchers.  

We also know it depends on a culture in which data are embraced as a tool for improvement. By having a simple system for regularly reporting student attendance data and empowering practitioners to use those data to solve problems, we’ve seen dramatic improvements unfold throughout Chicago — in grades, freshman on-track rates, and high school graduation rates. Data-driven, goal-oriented conversations are happening across the district. Schools are using attendance data to set goals around particular groups of students and to have difficult, but important, conversations about how they could better support students to make progress toward high school and college graduation. Still, we’re pushing one another — to challenge our assumptions, to deepen our questions, and to accelerate our pace of progress — with the same spirit of inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge that we hope we’re instilling in our students.   

 

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Citation: Allensworth, E. & Evans, S. (2016). Tackling absenteeism in Chicago.  Phi Delta Kappan, 98 (2), 16-21. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELAINE ALLENSWORTH (elainea@uchicago.edu, @UChiConsortium) is the Lewis-Sebring Director of the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.
SHAYNE EVANS (shayneevans@uchicagocharter.org) is chief executive officer of the University of Chicago Charter School and its four campuses. 

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