Balfanz Addresses Chronic Absenteeism in White House Gathering

A School of Education professor addressed chronic absenteeism and its pernicious effects on students in the public schools at a recent White House gathering on the “Chronic Absenteeism Challenge: Engaging Disengaged Youth for Academic and Life Success,” sponsored by the U. S. Department of Education.

With Secretary Arne Duncan present, Bob Balfanz, a research professor in SOE’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools, said, “Chronic absenteeism wreaks havoc with everything folks in this room are trying to do to improve public education, in particular for our most vulnerable students—students who live in poverty and foster care, minority students and students with disabilities.”

The meeting was also attended by, among others, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Secretary Duncan’s deputy, John King, a former commissioner of education for the State of New York; and Roberto Rodriguez, President Obama’s deputy assistant on the Domestic Policy Council.

The gathering reflects a growing national awareness that poor attendance is an early warning sign that students could be headed for academic trouble. There is good evidence that chronic absenteeism reduces school readiness, grade-level reading rates, school success during the key 6th- and 9th-grade transition years, academic achievement, high-school graduation rates and college success. It also increases a student’s chances of getting involved with the juvenile justice system and of suffering from poor health.

The majority of states, districts and schools didn’t keep track of chronic absenteeism rates last year, let alone know how many students are trending toward it this year. But next spring, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights will report on how many students are missing from class for 15 or more days of school for any reason in districts across the country.

This will be the first time that nationwide statistics will be available showing the chronic absenteeism rate for nearly all public schools. “The report will be a thunderbolt in many communities,” said Balfanz, “a wakeup call that will spur action, because there will be surprise at the number of chronically absent students in many districts.”

He added: “If you are trying to improve pre-K to 12 public education, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods, you can’t get there without addressing chronic absenteeism. The good news is once we are aware of the magnitude, location and impact of chronic absenteeism, it can be remedied through straightforward actions.”