Reassessing concerns about school may help improve academic achievement

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks at what impact an intervention designed to help students with concerns about starting middle school has on their academic achievement, behaviour, and well-being.

Geoffrey Borman and colleagues conducted the study with 1,304 sixth graders (Year 7) at 11 middle schools in a US Midwestern school district. Within each of the 11 schools, students were randomly assigned to the intervention or control condition. The intervention group was given reflective writing exercises, two months apart, which were designed to help students reassess any concerns and worries they might have about belonging in school. The control condition exercises asked students to write about neutral middle school experiences that were not related to school belonging.

The researchers collected pre- and post-intervention survey data on students’ reported social and emotional well-being, and official school records of student attendance, disciplinary records, and grades. The results of the study suggested that the intervention reduced behavioural referrals by 34% (effect size = -0.14), decreased absence by 12% (ES = -0.13), and reduced the number of failing grades by 18% (ES = -0.11). Differences across demographic groups were not statistically significant.

Source: Reappraising academic and social adversity improves middle school students’ academic achievement, behavior, and well-being (August 2019) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Home visits show effect on absenteeism and performance

A new study by Steven Sheldon and Sol Bee Jung from Johns Hopkins School of Education examines Parent Teacher Home Visits (PTHV), a strategy for engaging educators and families as a team to support pupil achievement. The PTHV model has three main components: (1) an initial visit in the summer or autumn in which educators focus on getting to know the pupil and the family, (2) ongoing two-way conversation during the school year, and (3) a second visit in the winter or spring with a focus on how to support the child academically.

Four large urban districts from across the US participated in the study. From each district, the researchers requested pupil-level data about demographic characteristics (eg, gender, race) and pupil outcomes (eg, attendance and standardised test performance). Additionally, districts were asked to provide data about the implementation of PTHV in their schools.

Key findings of the study were as follows:

  • On average, schools that systematically implemented PTHV experienced decreased rates of pupil chronic absenteeism and increased rates of pupil English language and maths proficiency, as measured on state assessments.
  • Pupils whose families participated in a home visit were less likely to be chronically absent than pupils whose families did not participate.
  • For pupils, attending a school that was implementing home visits with at least 10% of pupils’ families was associated with a decreased likelihood of being chronically absent.
  • For pupils, attending a school that was implementing home visits with at least 10% of pupils’ families was associated with an increased likelihood of scoring at or above proficiency on standardised English language assessments.

Source: Student outcomes and parent Year 3 evaluation teacher home visits (November 1018), Johns Hopkins University

Defining chronic absence

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), US schools are obliged to evaluate their performance using four academic achievement measures and one non-academic measure. Most states have adopted “chronic absenteeism” as their fifth indicator.

FutureEd, a “think tank” organisation at Georgetown University, has released “Who’s In: Chronic Absenteeism Under the Every Student Succeeds Act”, a report that analyses the 51 state ESSA plans regarding absenteeism and relates them to federal data on chronic absenteeism.

State ESSA plans show that 36 US states and Washington, DC have included chronic absences in their performance indicators. Yet there is no set standard to define chronic absenteeism. Of the 36 states using attendance as a performance indicator, 27 states define chronic absenteeism as missing ten percent of school days; five states inversely require 90% or more attendance, two states require more, and three states define it as missing a set number of days. Most states have not established standards for how many chronically absent pupils a school should have.

The review of federal absence rates shows that chronic absence is more prevalent in high school than in the earlier grades, and more prevalent among pupils from lower socio-economic status. Researchers found that the greatest variance in attendance is not between states or districts, but between schools within the same district. In fact, two-thirds of the variance was among schools in the same district, showing that measuring attendance is a meaningful measure of a school’s performance.

Suggestions to increase attendance include:

  • Establishing a nationwide standard definition for “chronic absence”, expressed as a percentage of the school year.
  • Including all absences, not just unexcused ones, in determining if a pupil has a chronic problem.
  • Establishing, by state, what percentage of chronic absences is too high for their schools and then set a realistic, achievable goal to measure improvement.
  • Giving teachers professional development credit to attend workshops on strategies to improve attendance.

Source: Who’s In: Chronic Absenteeism Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (September 2017), FutureEd, Georgetown University

Links between pre-school absenteeism and academic learning

A new study, published in Child Development, found that children in the US pre-school programme Head Start who missed 10% or more of the school year had fewer academic gains than their peers who attended pre-school more regularly.

Arya Ansari and Kelly M Purtell used data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009 cohort (n=2,842) to examine the effects of absenteeism among 3- and 4-year-olds on early academic learning. Their findings revealed that, on average, children missed eight days of the school year. However, 12% of children were chronically absent – defined as missing 10% of the school year or more – and missed an average of 22 days of school. Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in maths and literacy during the pre-school year. For maths, this was equivalent to approximately two months of lost academic skill gains. In literacy the loss was three months.

The study also found that Black and Latino children were less likely to be absent than white children. Children from households with married parents were less likely to be absent than those from households without two parents. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operate for more hours per week and in larger and bilingual classrooms. Children were more likely to be absent if their mother showed more depressive symptoms and was unemployed. The quality of interactions between teachers and children positively affected children’s development of literacy skills, and the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Source:  Absenteeism in Head Start and children’s academic learning (May 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12800

The positive side of taking the school bus

Out of all the early school years, excessive absenteeism is most prevalent during kindergarten (Year 1). While there may be many reasons for this, including difficulty moving from pre-school, how they get to school has been little studied.

In the first study to examine the effects of taking a school bus on reducing school absences, Michael Gottfried of the University of California Santa Barbara examined if taking a school bus to school reduced kindergarten pupil absence rate, and looked for any patterns among child and family characteristics.

Subjects were 11,000 US public school pupils who participated in The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Class of 2010–2011 (ECLSK:2011). As part of the study, data including school bus-taking was collected on a nationally representative set of kindergarten pupils in the 2010–2011 school year. Twenty-four percent of these kindergarten pupils took a school bus to school. They were paired with non-bus-taking pupils based on demographics, household conditions and kindergarten entry skills. Results showed that the kindergarten pupils who took the bus to school were less likely to be absent than their non-bus-taking peers, regardless of family characteristics, poverty level, or distance to school.

Authors discuss several implications of these findings, most notably that if taking the bus to school increases pupil attendance, this should be a consideration when budget cuts threaten to curtail school bus services.

Source: Linking getting to school with going to school (April 2017), Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis

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.