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Early warning systems fall short in combating absenteeism at school

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3 empty student desks with attached chairs in a dimly lit classroom. Partial window in the background

Chronic absenteeism has surged across the country since the pandemic, with more than one out of four students missing at least 18 days of school a year. That’s more than three lost weeks of instruction a year for more than 10 million school children. An even higher percentage of poor students, more than one out of three, are chronically absent. 

Nat Malkus, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, calls chronic absenteeism – not learning loss – “the greatest challenge for public schools.” At a Feb. 8, 2024 panel discussion, Malkus said, “It’s the primary problem because until we do something about that, academic recovery from the pandemic, which is significant, is a pipe dream.” 

The number of students who have missed at least 18 days or 10% of the school year remained stubbornly high after schools reopened. More than one out of three students in high poverty schools were chronically absent in 2022.

One district in the Southeast tried to tackle its post-pandemic surge in absenteeism with a computer dashboard that tracks student data and highlights which students are in trouble or heading toward trouble. Called an early warning system, tracking student data this way has become common at schools around the country. (I’m not identifying the district because a researcher who studied its efforts to boost attendance agreed to keep it anonymous in exchange for sharing the outcomes with the public.) 

The district’s schools had re-opened in the fall of 2020 and were operating fully in person, but students could opt for remote learning upon request. Yet nearly half of the district’s students weren’t attending school regularly during the 2020-21 year, either in person or remotely. One out of six students had crossed the “chronically absent” threshold of 18 or more missed days. That doesn’t count quarantine days at home because the student contracted or was exposed to Covid. 

The early warning system color coded each student for absences. Green designated an “on track” student who regularly came to school. Yellow highlighted an “at risk” student who had missed more than 4% of the school year. And red identified “off track” students who had not come to school 10% or more of the time. During the summer of 2021, school staff pored over the colored dots and came up with battle plans to help students return. 


A fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research studied what happened the following 2021-22 school year. The results, published online in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis on Feb. 5, 2024, were woefully disappointing: the attendance rates of low-income students didn’t improve at all. Low-income students with a track record of missing school continued to miss as much school the next year, despite efforts to help them return. 

The only students to improve their attendance rates were higher income students, whose families earned too much to qualify for the free or reduced price lunch program. The attendance of more advantaged students who had been flagged red for “off track” (chronically absent) improved by 1 to 2 percentage points. That’s good, but four out of five of the red “off track” students came from low-income families. Only 20% of the pool of chronically absent students had been helped … a bit.

The selling point for early warning systems is that they can help identify students before they’re derailed, when it’s easier to get back into the routine of going to school. But, distressingly, neither rich nor poor students who had been flagged yellow for being “at risk” saw an improvement in attendance.

Yusuf Canbolat, the Harvard fellow, explained to me that early warning systems only flag students. They don’t tell educators how to help students. Every child’s reason for not coming to school is unique. Some are bullied. Others have asthma and their parents are worried about their health. Still others have fallen so behind in their school work that they cannot follow what’s going on in the classroom. 

Common approaches, such as calling parents and mailing letters, tend to be more effective with higher-income families, Canbolat explained to me. They are more likely to have the resources to follow through with counseling or tutoring, for example, and help their child return to school. 

Low-income families, by contrast, often have larger problems that require assistance schools cannot provide. Many low-income children lost a parent or a guardian to COVID and are still grieving. Many families in poverty need housing, food, employment, healthcare, transportation or even help with laundry. That often requires partnerships with community organizations and social service agencies

Canbolat said that school staff in this district tried to come up with solutions that were tailored to a child’s circumstances, but giving a family the name of a counseling center isn’t the same as making sure the family is getting the counseling it needs. And there were so many kids flagged for being at risk that the schools could not begin to address their needs at all. Instead, they focused on the most severe chronic absence cases, Canbolat said.

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that is working with schools to improve attendance, said that a case management approach to absenteeism isn’t practical when so many students aren’t coming to school. Many schools, she said, might have only one or two social workers focusing on attendance and their caseloads quickly become overloaded. When nearly half of the students in a school have an attendance problem, system-wide approaches are needed, Chang said.

One systematic approach, she said, is to stop taking an adversarial tone with families — threatening parents with fines or going to court, or students with suspensions for truancy violations. “That doesn’t work,” Chang said. 

She recommends that schools create more ways for students to build relationships with adults and classmates at school so that they look forward to being there. That can range from after-school programs and sports to advisory periods and paying high schoolers to mentor elementary school students. 

“The most important thing is kids need to know that when they walk into school, there’s someone who cares about them,” said Chang.

Despite the disappointing results of using an early warning system to combat absenteeism, both researchers and experts say the dashboards should not be jettisoned. Chang explained that they still help schools understand the size and the scope of their attendance problem, see patterns and learn if their solutions are working. 

I was shocked to read in a recent School Pulse Panel survey conducted by the Department of Education in November 2023 that only 15% of school leaders said they were “extremely concerned” about student absences. In high-poverty neighborhoods, there was more concern, but still only 26%. Given that the number of students who are chronically absent from schools has almost doubled to 28% from around 15% before the pandemic, everyone should be very concerned. If we don’t find a solution soon, millions of children will be unable to get the education they need to live a productive life. And we will all pay the price.


This story about school early warning systems was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Proof Points newsletter.

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