Surprise rewards for good attendance had a surprising consequence

A working paper by Carly Robinson and colleagues, published by the Harvard Kennedy School, reports on an experiment to measure the impact of attendance rewards on pupils.

The trial included 15,629 sixth to twelfth grade pupils (Year 7-13) from 14 school districts in California. All the pupils had previously had perfect attendance in at least one month in the autumn. The pupils were randomly allocated to one of three groups:

  • “Prospective Award” pupils received a letter telling them they would receive a certificate if they achieved perfect attendance in February (the following month).
  • “Retrospective Award” pupils received a letter and certificate telling them they had earned an award for perfect attendance during one month in the autumn term.
  • Control pupils received no communication.

The researchers collected data on the pupils’ attendance in the following month (February). They found there was no impact of offering the prospective reward on subsequent attendance. They also found that offering the retrospective award resulted in pupils attending less school in February. Absences among this group increased by 8% (an average of 0.06 days per pupil). The researchers suggest that the retrospective awards may have sent unintended signals to the pupils, telling them that they were performing better than the descriptive social norm of their peers, and exceeding the institutional expectations for the awarded behaviour.

Source: The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Retrospective Awards (July 2018) HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP18-020.

Can a postcard reduce pupils’ absenteeism?

In an effort to improve parents’ and guardians’ awareness of absenteeism, and therefore reduce pupil absenteeism, the Philadelphia school district in the US together with the National Center for Evaluation and Regional Assistance conducted a randomised controlled trial based on the principles of “nudge” theory. Nudge theory is an approach that involves unobtrusive intervention to promote desired behaviours.

In this study, the “nudge” was a single postcard sent to the homes of pupils in grades 1–12 (Years 2–13 in the UK) who had been absent the previous year to test whether it could reduce absenteeism and what impact, if any, different messages had. Two types of message were tested: one simply encouraging parents to improve their child’s attendance; the other included specific information about their child’s attendance history as well as encouraging them to improve their child’s attendance. A control group received no postcards from the school.

Todd Rogers and colleagues found that receiving a postcard reduced absences by around 2.4 percent. There was no statistically significant difference in pupils’ absence according to which message their parents received. The effect of the postcard did not differ between pupils in grades 1– 8 (Years 2–9) and pupils in grades 9–12 (Years 10–13).

Source: A randomized experiment using absenteeism information to “nudge” attendance (February 2017), Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

The effects of engaging teachers

Brookings’ Evidence Speaks series recently featured an article by Susanna Loeb and Jing Liu describing the effects of teacher engagement on students’ later life outcomes. The article explains that teachers who keep their students engaged are more likely to have students attend their classes, which leads to higher graduation rates. Research shows that absence rates double between middle and secondary school, due to multiple factors including difficulty getting to school, students’ preferring to work to bring in money, and the unpleasantness of being in certain classes.  Many students only miss partial days of school, skipping classes that are either too difficult or too easy.

In order to isolate the effects of individual teachers on student attendance, Loeb and Liu examined teachers’ abilities to engage with students as measured by class-period absence rates versus whole-day absence rates. They found that teachers who improved their students’ class-period attendance rates, and therefore were deemed engaging teachers, were a positive influence on these students’ graduation rates.

Source: Going to school is optional: Schools need to engage students to increase their lifetime opportunities (2016), The Brookings Institution

Using data to combat chronic absence

Chronic absenteeism (CA) has been broadly defined as missing so much school that a student is academically at risk. More specifically, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has defined it as missing 15 days or more for any reason. Hedy Chang at Attendance Works and Robert Balfanz at The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University recently examined the first-ever national data on chronic absenteeism released by the OCR, as well as data from the US Census Bureau and National Center for Education Statistics. Their goal was to determine if there were commonalities in patterns of chronic absenteeism, and if so, what possible solutions might be suggested based on these patterns.

The resulting research brief shows that CA is concentrated. Half of America’s chronically absent students can be found in just 4% of its districts and 12% of its schools. Where there are significant concentrations of poverty, there are significant amounts of absenteeism, regardless of whether the concentrations of poverty are in rural, urban, or suburban areas. The places with the largest numbers of chronically absent students usually have more than one generation of people living in poverty and a high African-American population.

The brief discusses how several districts successfully reduced chronic absenteeism by solving barriers to school attendance including unsafe walks to school, unreliable transportation, health issues like asthma, and making the schools welcoming and safe environments. A common pattern in the districts’ successes was that they all had access to data detailing their schools’ chronic absences. The authors make several recommendations to ensure that districts, schools, and families have the chronic-absence data they need. These recommendations include:

  • Examine what schools with low chronic absenteeism rates, despite facing challenges that can be a barrier to school attendance, are doing to overcome those barriers.
  • Use data to find indicators that a student is prone to CA. One such indicator is if a student missed more than 10% of the prior school year and two days in the first month of the current school year. Parents and school staff should be alerted.
  • When students are determined to be CA, it is important to find out why. Solving these problems is often most effective using teams of leaders who meet regularly and have the resources to solve the problems.

Source: Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence, Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center