As many as 8 million U.S. public school students struggle academically simply because they miss too much school. Recognizing this, 36 states and the District of Columbia have begun holding schools accountable for chronic student absenteeism under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
That leaves school and district leaders scrambling for proven practices to keep students coming to school every day. One smart, simple, and inexpensive strategy is using “nudges,” an approach that aims to alert parents and caregivers when attendance becomes problematic.
Todd Rogers, a Harvard University researcher, describes nudges as “unobtrusive interventions to promote desired behavior.” That means there’s no mandate to do anything and no penalty assigned—just a reminder enhanced, in some cases, with a little personal information. Richard Thaler, the University of Chicago professor who won the 2017 Nobel prize in economics for his work on nudge theory, framed it like this in his 2008 book on the concept: “Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”
Nudges have been effective at getting voters to the polls and getting homeowners to reduce energy usage. And they seem to work for improving school attendance, especially when schools tell parents how many absences their students have accrued.
This approach works, in part, because many parents are clueless about how many days their children have missed. When Rogers and his team surveyed families, parents estimated that their children had missed about nine days of schools in the previous year. In fact, they had all missed at least 17.8 days, right at the 18-day threshold for chronic absenteeism. Most didn’t think their child had missed any more time than other students.
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Eighteen days may sound like a lot, but it’s just two days a month in a school year, and that can add up pretty quickly. Parents also tend to fixate on unexcused absences, without considering the lost instructional time that comes when a child is sick or out of school for a family occasion.
Working in Philadelphia, Rogers and Avi Feller sent five postcards to the families of more than 40,300 high-risk students throughout the 2014-15 school year. One group received a message about the value of good attendance. A second set received a card telling them how many days their children had missed so far. And a third set got a breakdown of how their children’s attendance compared to that of classmates.
The researchers found the third approach, comparing classmates, was most effective: It reduced total absences by 6 percent and the share of student who were chronically absent by 11 percent, when compared to similar students not involved in the study. Postcards providing just the number of absences were almost as effective. To be sure, the nudges didn’t result in huge gains. A control group who received no postcards missed an average of 17 days, compared to 15.9 days for those receiving the classroom comparisons.
But attendance did improve, the intervention worked in both elementary and secondary schools, and it’s cheap and eminently scalable. Rogers and Feller estimate that the mailers cost $6 for every day of added attendance. They compare that to a mentoring experimenting in Chicago, which they estimated at $500 for every added day.
In West Virginia, a pair of researchers used a different, and highly successful, median for the message: texting. Targeting 22 middle and high schools, Peter Bergman and Eric Chen of Teachers College, Columbia University, connected school information systems with teachers’ electronic grade books. They then send weekly alerts detailing any missed assignments and absences—for each class, not just whole-day absences. If a student had a grade below 70, parents received a monthly update. Researchers estimate that every family in the study was contacted an average 52 times over the year.
The results: Course failures dropped by 38 percent and class attendance increased by 17 percent among the students whose families got the texts, compared to similar students. Researchers didn’t see much impact on standardized test scores but found improvements on classroom tests and exams.
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In Pittsburgh, researchers connected with families of younger students with a more personal approach to texting. It resulted in a more personal response. The pilot program, led by Kenneth Smythe-Leistico and Lindsay C. Page, focused on 45 students in two kindergarten classes at a school. Working with an AmeriCorps worker, they prepared a text for every week. Some texts focused on the value of attendance. Some mentioned resources available. And some reached out to parents when a child was absent.
The kindergarten classrooms, which in previous years reported that more than 30 percent of children were chronically absent, saw that rate fall to 13 percent. Rather than a control group, Smythe-Leistico and Page used a synthetically constructed comparison school, which had a chronic absenteeism rate of 24 percent.
Over the school year, Pittsburgh’s pilot program morphed into something entirely different. Parents started responding to the weekly texts with requests for help. One mother needed ideas for soothing her little boy’s anxiety about going to school. Home visits and extra attention in the classroom helped solve that problem. Another had just been evicted and didn’t know how to get her daughter to school. The AmeriCorps worker connected her to community agencies, which not only found the family temporary shelter but arranged for transportation to school. That kindergartner didn’t miss a day during the difficult transition.
“I would place the work we did in Pittsburgh somewhere between ‘nudge’ work and outright support,” Smythe-Leistico said in an email.
Pittsburgh’s experience underscores the point that nudges, alone, can never be enough to solve a school’s chronic absenteeism problem. Gentle reminders can do little to change attendance patterns for a student with serious asthma or one living in a homeless shelter. They aren’t going to fix behavioral or mental health problems leading to suspensions. Those students are going to need more intensive approaches, like mentoring or wrap-around services. But nudges can help take care of some of the easier cases, leaving school officials more time and energy to focus on getting the students with the most challenges to show up every day.