Education only works if students show up to be educated, so absenteeism has been a problem as long as there have been schools. A century ago, a quarter of the kids in the Chicago House of Corrections were there for truancy — an example of how seriously government can take the attendance requirement.
A recent survey of absentee rates at New Jersey schools found them higher than desired, but they are trending in the right direction.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of the 180 days school is in session annually. At N.J. schools, the share of chronically absent students fell from 10.3 percent in 2014-15 to 9.7 percent in 2015-16, according to an annual report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey. The number of districts with high absenteeism also fell, from 216 to 192.
Unfortunately, attendance is a bigger problem in this region than the rest of the state, not surprising since economic conditions influence truancy. Cumberland County had the state’s highest chronic absentee rate at 15.9 percent of students, and Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean Counties’ schools were also among the top six in the state.
This matters because chronic absenteeism, even in grade school, is a strong predictor of not graduating from high school — which makes a lot of bad economic and social outcomes more likely.
The challenge in addressing absenteeism is that it can have many causes. Some are found in the students, such as teenage motherhood, poor academic performance and bullying. Families provide others, such as little parent involvement, low income and stressful experiences. Schools and communities can have an influence, too, failing to engage students, provide good facilities or keep neighborhoods safe.
The state requirement to attend also matters. In New Jersey, it’s mandated only for children ages 6 to 16, so each year the ACNJ survey shows the poorest attendance is in the very early grades and high school.
Nearly all schools already have programs to combat chronic absenteeism. Their efforts are being encouraged by monitoring and reporting requirements, and stronger ones have been proposed in the Legislature.
Some states have reduced high school absenteeism by making minimum student performance a requirement for a driver’s license.
Parental notification systems are widespread.
A recent Brookings Institution report said studies show their results are varied, with a single postcard increasing attendance by 2.4 percent, an intervention in person with parents boosting attendance 10 percent, and text messaging parents whenever the student doesn’t show up at school doing the best with a 17 percent improvement.
The factors for students and schools are so varied and specific that educators and local officials need to develop their own mix of approaches through trial and error. If they’re heading in the right direction, they can keep adjusting and do better.
And parents need to attend too — to their actions that encourage regular attendance such as a smoothly operating household (especially in the morning) and that impair attendance such as adversely scheduled vacations or problems at home.
And take those absence messages seriously, coming to a smartphone near you soon.