Missing Out on Reading

Four years ago, the teachers at Robert Bailey IV Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island, set a goal that all their students would learn to read well by the end of third grade. They adjusted their curriculum, developed an individual learning plan for each struggling reader, and launched an engaging summer program.

But they quickly realized that whatever they did inside the classroom wasn't going to matter much if the students weren't showing up for school. An attendance analysis found that one in five of their young students was missing the equivalent of a month of school each year.

This wasn't truancy in the traditional sense, because parents usually know when kindergartners and first-graders are staying home and call in to the school with an excuse. But "chronic absence" -- defined as missing 10 percent of the school days -- was affecting academic achievement nonetheless. As school officials looked over the data and as teachers talked to parents, patterns began to emerge. The parents of many chronically absent children, for instance, worked overnight shifts and were falling asleep before taking their children to school.

So Bailey opened an early-morning program, allowing parents to drop off children at 6:30 A.M. -- after the night shift ended but before parents working the shift went to bed. Local organizations used a federal grant to begin providing transportation to children who needed it and delivering other services to address the underlying social and economic problems keeping children from getting to school.

Since the program began four years ago, Bailey has seen its rate of chronically absent students drop from 21 percent to 10 percent. The elementary school's reading scores, meanwhile, are up: 59 percent of third graders now read on grade level, compared to 28 percent in 2006, according to state test results.

Among the causes of problems in developing literacy, absenteeism in the early grades is often overlooked. We think of truancy as a problem among middle- and high-school students. Much less attention is paid to excused, but persistent, absences that keep children out of the classroom and off track for learning, exacerbating the achievement gap and, ultimately, the high school dropout problem.

Research shows that nationwide, one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students misses 10 percent of the school year, or about a month, meeting the definition of chronic absence. In some school districts, including Providence and New York City, the rate is much higher. The research also demonstrates that these absences -- excused or unexcused -- can have an early, often lasting, effect on academic performance.

Students who were chronically absent in kindergarten suffered academically in the first grade regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, we reported in Present, Engaged, and Accounted For, published in 2008 by the National Center for Children in Poverty. The effects are particularly pronounced among Hispanic students in reading. For low-income children, the poor performance continues through fifth grade. In secondary school, chronic absence becomes a powerful predictor of dropping out of high school, other research shows.

Test scores are not the only numbers that matter in education reform. Chronic absence in the early grades is essentially an early-warning system alerting schools that a student, long before he or she fills in the first bubble on a standardized test, could be headed off track.

"If you want to close the achievement gap and keep kids from dropping out, you've got to build good attendance habits in the early grades," said Maryclaire Knight, an education and community-services coordinator who works with the Bailey school as part of an Annie E. Casey Foundation initiative that targets schools and neighborhoods for a full range of approaches aimed at ensuring early school success. At Bailey, almost all of the children are poor and two-thirds are Hispanic, many of them still learning English.

Chronic absenteeism in the early grades can disrupt education for entire classrooms -- and schools. The constant churn of students can make classroom management difficult. And teachers may end up slowing down the pace of instruction to review lessons for children who missed class. In school districts where funding is tied to attendance, chronic absence can cost money.

Even so, most school districts in America don't track this data. Certainly teachers take roll every day and turn in the attendance sheets to the school office. Schools and district officials use those sheets to calculate average daily attendance, a number that is tied to various government funding streams. But schools typically don't look at whether individual students are missing extended periods of classroom time. And they don't look for the kinds of patterns that are key to understanding and ultimately reducing absences.

When districts do gather this data, principals have been able to recognize the not-so-mysterious causes of absences and fashion solutions. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Principal Margarita Cotto-Hernandez found that many of the Hispanic students at Burton Elementary School were missing school when their parents took them for extended visits to their home country at Christmastime. She understood the cultural importance of the tradition. But she made sure that parents understood the academic importance of attendance.

"I run the workshops myself, and I always say that a good education is the key out of poverty," Hernandez says. "I explain that we all know we will lose our jobs if we miss too many days of work or always arrive late. We need to teach our children this is a priority if we want them to succeed. We can start while they are here at school."

In New York City, where 20 percent of elementary students are chronically absent, a principal at a Bronx school faced a different sort of cultural challenge. Many of his Muslim students were staying home through Ramadan, hoping to avoid the school cafeteria while fasting. The school hired a Muslim man to sit with the students in a separate area at lunchtime, so the children didn't miss weeks of school.

In Baltimore, childhood illnesses often caused by unhealthy living conditions were keeping many children home from school. So school officials approached school nurses and asked them to reach out to the parents of children who were frequently sick.

The Baltimore effort is part of a broader initiative supported by the city, the school district, and the Open Society Institute, a local and national foundation, to reduce absences and cut the city's high school dropout rate. An attendance analysis found that 14 percent of first-graders miss 20 or more days of school a year. By middle school, the rate reached one-third.

"Encouraging good attendance is basically growing a key skill. It's teaching persistence and perseverance, which students need if they are to succeed during their school years and throughout their lives," said Jane Sundius, director of the Education and Youth Development Program for OSI in Baltimore. "Chronic absence is a serious problem -- one that merits intensive school and community responses, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school."

The latest analysis shows significantly improved attendance in Baltimore's middle schools with modest but consistent gains in elementary and high school attendance.

The progress in Providence and Baltimore belies a common misperception -- that little can be done about chronic absence, given the intractable problems that often keep children from making it to school. Some absentee students are sick, but others miss school because of the problems associated with poverty: frequent moves, foster-care placements, unreliable transportation, neighborhood crime, and parental depression or substance abuse.

Often, high absentee rates are a sign that an entire neighborhood needs help. Knight and her team of community -- service providers in Providence used Bailey's chronic-absence data to tip them off to children in need. With a federal grant, the team now has additional resources that pay for transportation to bring children to school, as well as family counseling and home visits, effectively creating a system of wraparound services for the most vulnerable children and families.

Chronic-absence data is also crucial to evaluating and reforming schools. Educators can't assess whether a new curriculum or teaching style is working unless they know whether the children are actually in the classroom to benefit from these reforms.

Ultimately, if we are to improve childhood literacy, we need to acknowledge the obvious: Children aren't likely to learn if they're not in school. Too often schools and parents fail to recognize the importance of good attendance in kindergarten and the primary grades. Our research demonstrated that missing too many days in these early years can set a child on the wrong course academically.

Often the children most likely to be chronically absent are also beset with a tangle of health, social, and cognitive problems that make learning difficult. By tracking absences, schools can spot these children early and start to intervene. Districts in turn can spot schools or entire communities that are in trouble.

While it may seem far removed from the challenge of early literacy, a vital innovation in helping kids prepare to read and succeed at reading would be the simple act of insisting that every school track and analyze chronic-absence data, even where it's not an obvious problem. Social-service providers can use the data to determine where and when they should intervene in a community. Student longitudinal databases, required for every state, should include attendance data as well as test scores. And school improvement efforts need to be measured by attendance gains as well as test improvements.