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School Absenteeism Has Become A Big Problem. But We Can Do Something About It.


April 3, 2024

Chronic absenteeism has become a pressing challenge for the nation’s schools. The stories are ubiquitous, featuring headlines like last week’s New York Times’s front-pager “Why School Absences Have ‘Exploded’ Almost Everywhere.” In Alaska, 43% of students were chronically absent in 2022-23 (meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year). In Oregon, the figure was 38%; in Nevada, 35%. And there’s little evidence that things are getting better.

Nationally, the share of students who are chronically absent nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022, from 15% to 28% (national data for 2023 is incomplete). In other words, nearly three in ten students missed four weeks (or more) of school. These are grim figures, especially given worrying data on student achievement and our slow progress combating pandemic learning loss.

Moreover, my AEI colleague Nat Malkus, who’s tracked the numbers on chronic absenteeism in his widely-referenced Return to Learn Tracker, has reported the situation is even worse in the nation’s poorest and low-achieving communities. In Los Angeles, 31% of students were chronically absent in 2022-23. In Detroit, two-thirds of students were.

Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Tim Daly, CEO of EdNavigator, a nonprofit that aids families with enrollment, special education, and absenteeism, says that some observers look at the absenteeism numbers and think they’re not a big deal. They may think it’s mostly seniors slacking off or kids who weren’t getting anything useful out of school, anyway. But Daly thinks that’s the wrong way to read the data.

While Daly acknowledges that there are surely some “self-motivated and independent high school students for whom absenteeism isn’t very costly,” he notes that “the largest increases have occurred in kindergarten and 1st grade.” When kids that young miss school, Daly says, “they are far less likely to become fluent readers and more likely to develop behavioral problems.”

I’ve heard repeatedly from school and system leaders that too many families got the message that students didn’t need to be in school every day. Indeed, long after schools officially reopened, there were intermittent closures due to staffing issues or medical precautions. As Daly puts it, “The biggest driver of absenteeism is a change in the culture of attendance. Post-pandemic, missing school is not such a big deal.” He adds that, “Grading policies became more lenient, which allowed students to earn the same grades with less effort and more absences.”

recent survey by researchers at the University of Southern California asked parents of frequently-absent students why their kids are missing school. The three most common reasons offered included students oversleeping or wanting to stay home due to various anxieties (about testing, school, and the like). Such answers suggest a profound change in how many families think about the importance of school attendance.  

Chronic absenteeism affects more than just the absent students. Teachers tasked with helping absent students catch up find it harder to stick with lesson plans, maintain consistent expectations, or fully engage students with more regular attendance. As Malkus puts it, “Students thrive in schools where their peers routinely show up, behave appropriately, and complete their schoolwork. Widespread and severe chronic absenteeism disrupts these fundamental routines and rhythms and can erode even the best culture of high expectations.”

So, what can we do about all this?

It starts with recognizing that absenteeism is something that schools must address. I’ve spoken to more than one superintendent who insisted they can’t be responsible for ensuring students make it to school. Malkus rejects that stance, urging school and community leaders to reset expectations and “make it clear to your teachers, parents, and students that exceptional pandemic practices are over and that reestablishing regular attendance is job number one.”

Malkus says school leaders can’t be reluctant about “discussing families’ and students’ obligations.” Indeed, he says, combating absenteeism can go a long way towards addressing learning loss and that, “unlike tutoring or extended learning time, [it] simply requires students and parents to return to pre-pandemic behavioral patterns.”

Daly says, “We erred on the side of caution during the height of COVID. Parents were scolded by school nurses for sending their child if they had even a hint of a runny nose.” Things have changed, he says, and it’s time to tell “parents to send their kids unless they have more significant symptoms.”

Ultimately, Daly suggests that combating absenteeism requires “rebuilding the relationship between families and schools” of which “so much was lost in the past four years.” A good place to start, he says, is retiring emergency pandemic-era policies which enabled absenteeism. Daly points to practices such as granting students a lot of leniency in making up missed work or allowing them to earn credit in courses from which they were frequently absent. “Those policies made it very easy for students to get passing grades while missing tons of school,” he explains.

Setting clear expectations. Partnering with parents. Making attendance matter. Restoring a sense of normalcy. This is all sensible advice for addressing absenteeism and for much else besides.

Schooling is always a handshake between students and teachers, between parents and families. The explosion of chronic absenteeism illustrates how thoroughly pandemic-era habits and school practices loosened that grip. It’s time to get serious about strengthening it.