Boosting attendance takes more than student incentives

Posted Feb 23, 2018
As school districts work to improve attendance rates, some administrators are looking to get quick results by offering children with perfect or improved attendance things like bicycles or mp3 players, or other prizes.

Fort Worth Independent School District officials announced a new attendance incentive program in January that will push schools to increase their individual attendance rates by offering students who improve iPods, hoodies, beanies or any other number of awards.

The initiative is slated to cost the district $1.5 million, but school leaders point out that because of how daily attendance rates play into school funding, if attendance increases by just 1 percent districtwide, Fort Worth schools can bring in more than $5 million a year in additional state funding.

Research examining whether or not such efforts actually work is mixed. For instance, Edward Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, found that offering students external incentives like money or movie tickets to perform a task often backfired in the long run. His findings suggest that if kids receive external rewards for attending school, rather than developing an internal motivation to aim higher, they will be less motivated to continue their education in the future without a reward present.

On the other hand, researchers from the University of California, Davis and Claremont Graduate University found that providing financial incentives for parents combined with non-financial incentives for students attending summer programs could increase the daily attendance rate by 9 percent and the likelihood of having perfect attendance by 63 percent. It should be noted, however, that their study did find a statistically insignificant effect on attendance when non-financial incentives were provided for students without any incentive for parents.

Numerous studies have shown that chronic absences as early as kindergarten can have negative long-term impacts on reading proficiency, performance in math, test scores, and suspension and dropout rates. That is something that needs to be addressed.

That said, when it comes to research on how engaging families makes a difference in long-term student outcomes, there are no mixed results. It has been demonstrated time and time again that regardless of socio-economic status, gender or racial and ethnic background, students with involved families are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, higher rates of homework completion, better social skills and behavior, and enroll in more challenging classes, and are more likely to graduate and go on to college.

A whitepaper from Johns Hopkins University concluded that when schools developed partnerships with families and their surrounding communities that focused on improving attendance, the average rate of chronic absenteeism decreased.

South of Fort Worth, the Houston Independent School District is working to improve attendance by removing barriers to some of the most basic necessities students struggle with.

According to district data, 86 percent of students considered chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year were from low-income families and regularly lacked reliable transportation, they worked a part-time job to help provide for their families, or were asked to provide child care for younger siblings during the day.

To ease the burden on families, the Houston district now provides an on-site food pantry, health clinic, school supplies, laundry services and an open lab for making up missed class time. Officials also rely on “campus turnaround plans” for elementary schools to help identify students with poor attendance patterns quickly, and intervene before children fall too far behind.

A similar approach is being taken in California’s Kern County, where school officials are working to make parents and students, as well as the rest of the community, more aware of the importance of showing up to class every day while removing barriers to attendance.

When school social workers discovered a few years ago that a large number of junior-high and high-school age students were being kept home to care for younger siblings, the county began working with the Department of Human Services to help those families find free or sliding-scale day care. County education officials at the time noted that building up family and community engagement efforts ensures schools can have a more positive impact on students.

As school principals in Fort Worth decide what awards will best motivate their students to show up, administrators may also want to consider how they can improve community and family outreach efforts–because, ultimately, increasing attendance is an achievement districts can’t reach alone.

It is vital that schools don’t brush off the importance of family engagement and the powerful impact it has on students showing up every day.