Testimony: Strategies for Solving Chronic Absenteeism in the District of Columbia

FutureEd Policy Director Liz Cohen delivered testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia, Committee of the Whole, on May 13, 2024.

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to testify today.

My name is Liz Cohen, and I am the policy director at FutureEd, an independent policy center based at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy, that has written extensively about chronic student absenteeism.

While it’s important for schools to deploy strategies that fit their specific needs and challenges, improving attendance comes down to two things: information and relationships, both in schools and between schools and families.

More timely public data on absenteeism is an important policy adjustment that will greatly help the District of Columbia address the serious problem of chronic absenteeism. That makes the requirement for increased student attendance reporting proposed by the Truancy Reduction for Student Success Act an important step in the right direction. It could be an even more impactful step to replace the bill’s current language calling for OSSE to post monthly data by school with a requirement that the agency create and maintain a dashboard showing the daily rate of chronically absent students for every DC public school.

This is what Rhode Island has done for its 277 schools, and the publicly available data is driving constructive school building responses as well as deeper engagement from the business community, municipal leaders outside of education, and more.

In Rhode Island, every school submits its daily attendance data within their district data system, which through an automatic data link transfers every night to the Rhode Island Department of Education. This approach would likely require fewer human resources than the monthly posting proposed in the Truancy Reduction for Student Success Act, though a monthly post would be a tremendous improvement over the status quo.

The funding proposal in the Chronic Absenteeism and Truancy Reduction Act is unlikely to impact absenteeism rates. It’s not that schools don’t need resources. The problem is that tying funding to the number of absent students creates a perverse incentive to not solve the problem. To be clear, principals are unlikely to say, “Let’s not worry about chronic absenteeism because then we get more funds.” But this policy could ultimately reward a school who can’t or won’t make any progress on the very issue we are trying to solve.

One alternative could be to run a small grant program, using the funds you would have assigned per pupil, and allow schools to apply to pursue the approach they think will yield the best results. This would also help build the evidence base discussed in the Showing Up for Students Amendment Act, that would require OSSE to provide information about effective interventions. FutureEd’s Attendance Playbook summarizes a range of research-based strategies for addressing chronic absenteeism; Montgomery County Public Schools has shared our playbook with every school in the district and asked them to select one or more of those strategies to implement. A similar approach could work well in D.C.

Once the grant-funded approach has been implemented, a few things might happen. First, chronic absenteeism in the school is improving such that they won’t need additional funding to work on this issue. We also might learn that this approach didn’t work. In that case, the school likely doesn’t need more money – they need real help and partnership from OSSE, DHS, CFSA, and other D.C. agencies to come up with a new plan.

The Chronic Absenteeism and Truancy Reduction Act also proposes prioritizing Safe Passage for schools with high chronic absenteeism rates.  A first step might be to look at the effectiveness of Safe Passage and talk with students and families about whether it makes a difference. I’ve spoken with high school students at several Ward 8 high schools who said that Safe Passage doesn’t make them feel safer – there are broader community issues in many neighborhoods that require a citywide commitment to violence reduction. A 10th grade student said, “I try to get home before 8pm. The metro near my house is where there are a lot of shootings, but I don’t like the bus because it also doesn’t feel safe. So I try to get home early and if I can’t, I just hope that tonight is not my night to get hurt.” This issue of course is about much more than absenteeism.

The overlap between community violence and absenteeism, along with other challenges faced by D.C. families is why it’s worthwhile to bring the Department of Human Services into the absenteeism work with a case-management approach. If DHS can help with relationships, that help should be welcomed. Similarly, since schools need to ultimately own their relationships with their students, the proposal within the Chronic Absenteeism and Truancy Reduction Act requires schools to meet with a student before referral to CFSA makes sense. However, there will be cases where the student is so disconnected from the school that a meeting is impossible. We might consider a policy in which the school meets with a student before referral, or the school can document at least three serious attempts to hold a meeting. These webs of support and case management are also why some cities or states are developing Children’s Cabinets, or interagency councils that bring together representatives from any agency that interacts with children or families.

It is also critical to understand that if we have invested the resources to getting chronically absent students back to school on a regular basis, we also need to give them reasons to stay there. In other words, the ongoing work to improve academic rigor and build additional pathways through high school is actually part of the work to reduce chronic absenteeism. For example, the work of the Education Through Employment Data System should be seen as a significant tool in our attendance toolbox. It’s important that students see the academic and technical education schools provide as meaningful paths to success.

It’s heartening that we are here today to discuss not just one possible legislative avenue for improving attendance and combatting the crisis of chronic absenteeism in D.C. public schools, but four separate bills, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about how the city can work together to solve these serious problems.

I look forward to any questions.

Thank you very much.