Parents need help to better track their child’s attendance

With the help of modern technology we can track the number of steps we take, our packages out for delivery and even how many hours of sleep we get each night, but according to a new study, we still have a difficult time keeping tabs on how many days of school our students miss.

Researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School and the University of California, Berkeley found that simply mailing out postcards to parents in a timely manner when their kids miss school–and including the total number of days they had missed–helped boost attendance by up to 10 percent in the School District of Philadelphia.

They found that many parents have a hard time keeping accurate tallies of how often their children miss school–at least in part because parents’ own biases lead them to consider their student above average.

Put simply, children can be central to parents’ own identities. When parents see their children as successful, smart, well-liked or some other positive quality, parents feel pride in themselves. Therefore, according to researchers, parents are likely to downplay their children’s absences because doing so allows parents to think more positively about themselves.

As part of the study, the researchers sent out up to five alerts about school attendance labeled “Absences Matter and You Can Help,” to parents. The mailers included information about their child’s total absences as well as how it compared to classmates’ missed days. Children whose parent’s received such information saw significant increase in attendance.

The periodic messages updating parents about their children’s cumulative absences from school were designed by researchers to confront such belief systems parents may have about their children and themselves. That helped push parents to make sure their kids were getting to school.

We know how important regular school attendance is, yet more than 10 percent of public school students in the United States are still chronically absent every year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. That means children are missing an average of 18 or more days of school each year. Chronic absenteeism has been linked to poor academic outcomes–lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates, and lower test scores–as well as poor life outcomes such as higher rates of incarceration, poor health outcomes, and lower lifetime wages.

Throughout the country states have ramped up efforts to get kids to school. In Texas, some districts are offering students who improve their attendance iPods, hoodies, bicycles or any other number of awards. Schools in other states have expanded bus routes to assuage student transportation challenges, provided an area for students to do their laundry so they have clean clothes for school, or have increased health, dental and vision resources to address physical barriers that may keep students at home.

Authors of this latest study said that that their communications, which cost $6.60 per household, could be an effective part of a combined attack on classroom absences, but noted that sending out letters shouldn’t be the only intervention schools employ.

Mailing out letters when children miss school and helping parents keep tally of how many days their child has missed total is a strong first step toward improving attendance, they said. However, researchers concluded, schools should use the letters to “better target educational resources and personnel toward difficult absenteeism challenges that require more active and personal involvement.”