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Being There Matters: Tracking Student & Teacher Attendance

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires all states to include at least one non-academic measure in their accountability systems, along with the four academic measures of school quality or student success—results on state standardized tests in reading, math and science; English language learner proficiency; graduation rates for high schools and something else for middle and elementary schools.

The U.S. Department of Education’s final regulations, currently in limbo pending Trump administration review, leave states with a lot of latitude in selecting one or more non-academic indicator. Many ideas—from measures of 9th graders being on-track for graduation to benchmarks of college or career readiness—are under consideration. There is an especially strong case to make for states to adopt a pair of non-academic indicators addressing chronic absence among students and teachers.

Both of these indicators meet ESSA's first accountability criterion: compelling research linking non-academic metrics to measures of student success such as academic achievement or graduation.

A host of research shows chronic student absence—most commonly defined as missing at least 15 days or 10 percent of days within an academic year, for any reason—to be a leading indicator of academic problems. Researchers in Baltimore and Chicago linked chronic absence in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten to weaker third grade reading scores and higher levels of grade retention. In middle and high school, it’s a leading indicator that a student is off track for graduation, further studies show. This all makes perfect sense. Learning suffers when students are absent from the classroom, still the locus of most instructional activity.

Similarly, instruction suffers when teachers are absent from the classroom. Using data from different states, researcher teams from Columbia, Duke, and Harvard universities obtained similar estimates of the negative impact that teacher absence has on student achievement. Such findings are hardly surprising given that teachers represent the most potent school-based factor contributing to students’ academic achievement, as has been thoroughly documented in recent years.

One explanation for the negative impact of teacher absence is that the instructional skills of substitute teachers are inferior, on average, to those of the regular teachers whose classes they’re likely to cover. Only 15 states  require substitutes to hold a bachelor's degree, a baseline requirement for teachers in all states. Moreover, substitutes often teach on brief notice, and without necessary tools, such as lesson plans and seating charts to keep the instructional ball rolling.

For these reasons, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education tracks a measure of chronic teacher absence, also a leading indicator of student achievement. The OCR defines its school-level measure of teacher absence as the percentage of teachers in a school absent for more than 10 days in a school year for reasons other than professional development.

If it makes sense to exclude attendance at school district-required training from a measure of teacher absence, it also makes sense to exclude absences tied to military service, jury duty, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and such reasons as bereavement.

Beyond the link to student academic success, these chronic absence indicators meet another ESSA requirement: They can be systematically measured across a state and offer a meaningful basis for differentiating among schools. Both indicators are already being tallied in a uniform manner across all schools, as districts have done for OCR.

School districts’ responses to the biennial OCR survey haven’t been perfect, sometimes including professional development absences meant to be omitted. But systematic use of detailed attendance data, already collected by schools for reasons other than accountability, is nothing new. School funding is tied to average daily student attendance in many states, for example, and teacher absence is often tied formally to such employment policies as compensation.

Chronic absence offers a meaningful basis for differentiation among schools in two ways. First, OCR data show there is plenty of room for improvement. More than half of schools reported chronic student absence rates of 10 percent or more during the 2013-14 school year,

In the same year, 27 percent of pre-K through grade 12 teachers were chronically absent. Second, stakeholders of all types can grasp these indicators intuitively. School attendance is a nearly universal experience in this country—even home schools are required to record attendance data in some states.

All states ought to be able to implement measures of chronic student absence and chronic teacher absence as non-academic indicators of school quality and student success for the 2017-18 school year, as required by ESSA.

There are some legitimate technical challenges in the parsing and tallying of absences, but they are tractable. And perhaps more importantly, systems for gathering and auditing the data already exist.

This means the cost of implementing these indicators for accountability may be low relative to other non-academic indicators, and tampering with attendance data to game the accountability system entails considerable risks of subterfuge that come with the existing uses of attendance data.

The student absences over which schools have the most control are those caused by out-of-school suspensions, and “gaming” accountability by increasing use of in-school-suspensions, which don’t count as absences, would represent better practice and greater justice to many educators. Moreover, there’s been a surge in recent years in knowledge about constructive strategies schools can take to reduce student chronic absence.

Similarly, adjustments to state or district policies could reduce chronic teacher absence. For example, greater use of insurance to afford teachers income during long-term illnesses could reduce the need for accumulated unused sick-leave, a messy liability for districts that can feed absenteeism.

Implementing ESSA is a challenge, where the perfect is the enemy of the good. The case for using either chronic absence indicator is very strong. Embracing the pair entails more work, of course, but there are two reasons for states to take this on.

First, these indicators may be helpful in driving conversations about school climate and culture. The CORE Districts in California embraced chronic student absence as part of a common accountability framework developed under waivers to ESSA’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind. Teacher attendance affords administrators and others a portal on the professional culture prevailing in a school.

Second, research by economist Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University bolsters the case that teacher absence and student absence should be tracked together. Using data from North Carolina, Jackson estimated the impact of teacher quality—defined by value-added measures—on a suite of non-cognitive student outcomes, including chronic student absence.

Combined with extant evidence that teacher absence predicts teacher quality, this finding suggests there’s a lot to learn about the relationship between chronic teacher absence and chronic student absence.