A ’tsunami’ of chronic absenteeism

Since the pandemic, the percentage of students missing about one month of class time per year has more than doubled, Johns Hopkins researchers say

An empty school hallway, with lockers on one wall and doors to classroom on the
An empty school hallway, with lockers on one wall and doors to classroom on the other
For most of American educational history, the concept of attendance meant the same thing at most every school-average daily attendance as the percent of a student body in school on any given day. It has been the go-to metric since agrarian days and the standard commonly used to determine school funding. And, by that standard, most schools have proudly reported getting an "A" in attendance year after year, with an average of 90% or more of students in class every day.

But about a decade or so ago, Johns Hopkins education professor Bob Balfanz and the Everyone Graduates Center he runs started to draw people’s attention to a different, more telling metric, one with a deeper arithmetic and a more somber message: chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism calculates the percentage of a school’s student body that misses 10% or more of the days in a school year, or about one month of class time per year.

"We found that you can have average daily attendance in the nineties and still have 20% of your kids missing a month or more of school," Balfanz says of his preferred metric. "That fact is invisible when you only measure average daily attendance. It’s what led us to really getting people focused on this problem."

Absenteeism on the map

To better illustrate the scope and scale of the problem, the Everyone Graduates Center and the education nonprofit Attendance Works have built a web-based app that maps where chronic absenteeism is most troubling in vivid color, district by district, state by state.

"The results are easy to grasp and hard to deny," says Dan Princiotta, A&S ’05 (MA), Ed ’19 (EdD), an education researcher at the Everyone Graduates Center and the one primarily responsible for developing the mapping application and dashboard. "Two-thirds of kids in the nation are attending schools with high or extreme levels of chronic absenteeism," according to the latest federal data.

One look at Maryland, for instance, shows every single county at "high" or "extreme" levels of chronic absenteeism. High chronic absenteeism is defined as 20% or more of students missing a month or more of school. Extreme is defined as 30% or more.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," Balfanz says. "If I’m a school leader in Maryland and I look at this map, I’m thinking, ’We’ve got to all be engaged in helping.’"

Underwater

Chronic absenteeism is not just a cause du jour for Balfanz and Princiotta. Balfanz notes that research shows that chronic absenteeism drags down performance of the entire school as classrooms get bogged down as teachers struggle to catch up the absentee students, diverting precious time from new instruction.

"There’s good research that shows when you get to that 20% threshold of kids at your school who are chronically absent, it has impacts on the whole school," Balfanz says. "It’s not just the kids who are absent that are being impacted. It’s those that are attending as well."

Chronic absenteeism has also been shown to be a valuable early warning sign of school dropouts. Rates of absenteeism, for instance, are typically higher in areas where poverty makes it harder for students to regularly attend school, resulting in higher rates of course failures and ultimately dropping out. The metric, however, also draws attention to students whose success in school may be at risk everywhere, even in the best-resourced districts.


The Everyone Graduates Center has been focused on chronic absenteeism for a decade or more, but even they were not prepared for the spike in absenteeism that occurred during the pandemic.

"Since the pandemic, the prevalence of chronic absenteeism has more than doubled," Princiotta says. "You can see how widespread it is right on the map."

"It’s sort of like a tsunami," Balfanz says. "Where the water was already deep, it got deeper, and it reached many places where it wasn’t before. Now most places are underwater and places that had not experienced chronic absenteeism before are now experiencing it."

Practical advice

The good news is that the Everyone Graduates Center and Attendance Works are not Pollyannaish about chronic absenteeism. In their public outreach, the partners offer a clear set of evidence-based recommendations to schools and districts to combat chronic absenteeism.

"We’re not helpless. We can pump the water out before the boat gets swamped," Balfanz says, continuing the tsunami metaphor. "There are evidence-based strategies that we know make a difference."

Among the partnership’s recommendations are increasing the prevalence and effectiveness of student success systems, boosting family engagement in school life, making students feel more connected to and welcome in school, improving safety and health features, and building and strengthening collaborations with partners in the wider community.

"It takes people power to push chronic absenteeism down," Balfanz says. "These programs work, but it will take all’hands on deck to implement them in the comprehensive way needed."

Politics+Society

education , robert balfanz , absenteeism , school of education