Absenteeism is a huge concern for K–12 schools.
Consider this statistic: As many as 8 million students were chronically absent from school during the 2015–2016 school year, up from 7.2 million two years earlier, according to national data released in 2018 by Attendance Works. That means 1 in 7 students missed 15 or more days of school. Of those students, an estimated 1 in 10 kindergarten and first grade students were chronically absent. Chronic absenteeism is worse among special needs students, according to recent findings in some states.
Students who miss 15 days of school a year are considered chronically absent, according to the Department of Education. Why is this a problem? Chronic absenteeism “can translate into third-graders unable to master reading, sixth-graders failing subjects and ninth-graders dropping out of high school,” according to Attendance Works.
Recognizing the problem is a critical first step to combating the rise of chronic absenteeism. “Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered,” notes a report by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Data Analytics Can Get to the Root of the Problem
To get a true sense of absenteeism in schools, it needs to be consistently and accurately measured. Schools do keep data on average daily attendance but gathering that information only skims the surface of the problem, suggest analysts. In 2013, only six states kept records of chronic absenteeism, notes the Johns Hopkins report.
“Chronic absenteeism is not the same as truancy or average daily attendance,” notes the report. “A school can have average daily attendance of 90 percent and still have 40 percent of its students chronically absent, because on different days, different students make up that 90 percent.” This was something recognized early by Michael Bloomberg (then New York City’s mayor) and a task force he created in 2010 to campaign for more school engagement and to devise ways to deal with chronic absenteeism.
Notes the John Hopkins Report:
The campaign began with an acknowledgement of the problem and a commitment to getting and using data. When the task force realized that the data existed, but were not used because the system was too complicated, it worked with the city’s education department to create a “data dashboard” that enabled mentors, school personnel and community partners to see real-time data on student attendance. From this it became possible to flag students who were at risk of being chronically absent, missing 10 percent, or at least 20 days, of a school year.
This helped identify early warning signs among students through data that parsed not only current absences but historical absence figures as well as downward grade progression. In a pilot program that used this data to assign students “success mentors” and used soft technology initiatives like wake-up calls to students from celebrities such as Michael Jordan, students gained an additional total 7,000 days in class, notes the John Hopkins report.
Nudges and Collaboration Platforms Can Get Parents to Help
A 2018 Harvard University study found that parents often underestimate how often their children miss school. It also found that keeping parents involved and nudging them about their children’s absenteeism led to an uptick in attendance.
“Educational interventions that inform and empower parents … can complement more intensive student-focused absenteeism interventions,” notes the study. Technology can vastly scale these interventions. Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams, which already update students’ guardians about classroom and grade performance, can be adapted to share attendance records. “Nudges,” or digital alerts, can be used to keep parents in the loop, and have also been shown to improve college students’ STEM performance.
Immersive Classroom Technologies Can Improve Attendance
Technology is making its way into the classroom with tools that engage students a lot more than traditional lessons can. The more students are engaged, the more they will want to return to class, studies have shown.
“Having more engaging teachers increases not only attendance in the year in which the student has the teacher but also improves students’ chances of completing high school,” notes a Brookings Institution report.
According to a 2017 study published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, researchers at Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz University found that students using a virtual chemistry laboratory — equipped with Microsoft’s Kinect gesture technology — showed better retention and were able to complete complex laboratory tasks.
Students would much rather learn about dinosaurs by walking alongside them in a virtual prehistoric landscape than be taught about them by a teacher pointing to pictures with a stick. Students who are queasy in biology class can dissect frogs without using a scalpel. And what better way to learn about climate change than by learning about the diversity of the Amazonian rainforests while virtually trekking through them.
So, while some in K–12 education might dismiss things such as VR headsets as toys or distractions, they’re actually valuable tools to deepen student engagement, which in turn can help schools meaningfully combat absenteeism.