August 24, 2023
For years, education leaders have been working to reduce chronic absenteeism, a term commonly defined as students missing 10% of the academic year.
But the recent rise in chronic absenteeism since the COVID-19 pandemic is vexing the nation, and Utah is no exception. In Utah, chronic absenteeism rose from 13% in 2018 to 27% in 2022. Data show more than half of Utah students are either chronically absent or close to it.
This is a problem. A recent presentation by the Utah State Board of Education to the education interim committee meeting showed a compelling relationship between chronic absenteeism and student outcomes like decreased achievement and increased behavior incidents.
The state has made significant efforts to address this issue during the past legislative session. HB 400 – School Absenteeism Amendments directed the state board to make rules requiring districts to adopt non-punitive, evidence-based interventions to support attendance. Rather than implement strict or severe consequences, the state aimed to address the issue with humility about a complex problem.
Importantly, Utah education leaders and researchers note that there is no single reason to explain the uptick in absenteeism – the reasons are as varied as the students and families.
This reality suggests that a focus on parent empowerment in both public and publicly funded private education sectors may be one crucial element in addressing Utah’s chronic absenteeism problem.
Connect the public district schools to parent and family needs
For some students, parents may simply be unaware that a problem with attendance is developing. Work has been done to show the power of connecting with parents in addressing absences. Connections with parents can be home visits or even text messaging campaigns sent directly to parents so they are aware that the school knows the child is frequently absent, that they hope to see them back at school, and what negative learning and life outcomes are likely to result if students do not get enough instruction time. Family outreach and subsequent feedback could uncover issues as to why certain students are struggling more significantly.
Further, at the interim committee, the state board presented broad state data, which is a helpful start. As was mentioned in the meeting, the state could also research which of the individual districts or schools experience chronic absenteeism more than others and identify which issues could be addressed through additional interventions and resources targeted to those area’s needs (funding behavior specialists or adding bus stops where transportation is an issue). Disaggregated data may be more insightful than aggregated state data as to why students are not attending school and why families in an area may not yet be supporting their students where it’s needed most.
Enforce and communicate local definitions to staff and parents
The interim committee discussion highlighted that many districts and schools had differing definitions of terms like tardy, late tardy, and absent, and that sometimes the terms were applied unevenly in practice. Committee members shared stories of being confused themselves by their own school policies. It could be tempting for the state to require uniform terms among local districts for the purposes of data collection, but the principle of local control suggests that districts and schools should be able to retain authority over some of these terms and policies.
However, in retaining this flexibility, districts or schools should ensure these policies are communicated to staff who implement them in school records. Likewise, there should be adequate information explaining these policies to parents who may assume they know when their student is being considered absent or not.
Facilitate parent awareness of publicly funded education choice programs
Some students may be missing instruction time for a variety of personal or familial reasons. Some may not attend because they do not have adequate transportation, must work to support a household, or babysit younger siblings.
District schools can find solutions where applicable, but as with academics, effective schools are not one-size-fits-all institutions. This means that traditional district schools may not be the best option for all students or families to get the necessary instruction for progression and graduation. Flexible schooling options, some of which are available through state education choice programs, may help. Asynchronous private or charter online schools, a la carte home-school options funded through an education savings account, or even enrollment in other private schools funded through a voucher or ESA may give students the access or help they need. Some research shows improvement in absenteeism when students use education choice programs to attend private school.
To support parent awareness of this growing network of education choice options, the state could implement an awareness campaign about the publicly funded choice programs already available to students, offer counselors who can help families understand how these programs work, or even create a directory of options already approved by the state and being used by others.
Parents play a significant role in a student’s education and are a crucial piece to their attendance for better or for worse. State, local and school leaders ought to look for ways to empower parents with information and options so students do not have to lose out on so much instruction time.
Insights: analysis, research, and informed commentary from Sutherland experts. For elected officials and public policy professionals.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic absenteeism has spiked in Utah and beyond – a problem associated with negative outcomes for students.
Increasing parent awareness about the problems of absenteeism and communicating with parents about district or school policies can help parents support their children.
Education choice programs can alleviate unique personal and familial issues impacting absenteeism and could be promoted by the state institutions.
As Utah diversifies its K-12 education programs with choices, we should take note that the state’s colleges and universities are doing the same.
Some institutions of postsecondary schooling – like UVU and BYU-Pathway Worldwide – are already making strides in reducing the cost to acquire employable skills.
Religious differences can actually lead to bridges of cooperation to solve some of our biggest challenges, and that faith has an important role in public life.