Talented teachers keep students glued to their seats, and even kids who regard school as deadly dull make it a point of going to their classes. But while the quality of teaching can be improved, we won’t make every teacher a pedagogical wonder — someone like the character played by Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society” or Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” — capable of pied-pipering every child into coming back again and again. We need more prosaic techniques that can keep youth in school.
Nationwide, students are absent in alarm-bell numbers. Staying away for a day or two is not a big deal. But missing 15 days or more — which educators consider chronic absenteeism — is a ticket to academic failure. A new report documents that in California, three-quarters of a million students — that’s one out of eight — were chronically absent in 2016-2017. That’s more than 10 million school days lost.
This no-show problem starts very young. Astonishingly, one child in six misses at least 15 days in kindergarten. Those kids are much less likely than their classmates to be reading proficiently by third grade, and they are four times more likely than adept readers to drop out of school. As students get older, even more are chronically absent. Those youngsters are more likely than their classmates to get Fs in middle school and to quit school before earning a diploma.
Fewer than half the parents in an L.A. Unified study thought their child hadn’t turned in one or more assignments, although more than 70% didn’t do the work.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has invested in a new, low-cost approach to curbing absenteeism that’s been proven to move the needle. It’s a simple, potent idea: Enlist parents as allies in keeping their kids in school.
The strategy is premised on the fact that, aside from bare-bones report cards, many parents know next to nothing about how their offspring are faring in school. Asking children the hoary questions — did you do your homework? What did you do in class today? — usually elicits brushoff responses.
This lack of information goes a long way toward explaining why, as research shows, parents underestimate how many days their youngsters have been out of school and how that number of absences compares with their classmates’ attendance record. They aren’t aware until too late that their kids are academically at risk. Fewer than half the parents in an L.A. Unified study thought their child hadn’t turned in one or more assignments, although more than 70% didn’t do the work.
To correct these misperceptions and to enlist parents in keeping kids in school, 190,000 Los Angeles families whose kids met the chronically absent standard in the past will be mailed attendance information five times a year. The form, signed by superintendent Austin Beutner, is personalized: “Billy has missed more school than his classmates —16 days so far in this school year. … Students fall behind when they miss school. ... Absences matter and you can help.”
The tactic is borrowed from get-out-the-vote campaigns, and evidence demonstrates that it works. Chronic absenteeism was cut by 10% to 15% in a number of urban school districts, including Philadelphia and Chicago, that experimented with mailers, according to Todd Rogers of Harvard and Avi Feller of UC Berkeley, who conducted the Philadelphia experiment. The impact was similar in an L.A. trial run, overseen by Rogers, that involved about 20,000 families.
“Parents of low-income and minority students are often seen as a contributing cause of student failure,” Rogers and Feller point out, but “this ‘deficit’ view of parents hinders educational innovation. An ‘asset’ view can unlock new interventions that empower parents as partners in improving student outcomes.”
It’s anticipated that informing families about student absences will not only translate into better outcomes for the kids, it will also result in a dollars-and-cents bonanza for the district, because state funds for the schools are tied to student attendance. The mailer program, which costs $1.4 million, is expected to generate about $17 million in added revenues, which will benefit students across the district.
The letters-to-parents program will be supplemented for students with the worst attendance records, who will get one-on-one mentoring as well. That model, while costly, has also been shown to improve attendance and outcomes. The district is also experimenting with handing out rewards like movie tickets for good attendance.
These attendance-boosting strategies aren’t cure-alls for absenteeism, as Rogers, who brought the mailer model to Los Angeles, acknowledges, “but it’s a start,” he says. “Each additional day a student goes to school has an impact.”
David L. Kirp, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, and an emeritus professor of the School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.
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