4 Percent of Schools Contain Half of All Chronically Absent

A study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Education has revealed that chronic absenteeism is a problem in almost every school district in the country, but that half the chronically absent students in the nation are concentrated in just 4 percent of school districts.

“What we found was that chronic absenteeism was both widespread and highly concentrated,” said Bob Balfanz, director of the School of Education’s Everyone Graduates Center.

The September release of the study, “Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Prevent Chronic Absenteeism,” conducted with Attendance Works, a national and state initiative promoting improved school attendance policies, came during Attendance Awareness Month, a nationwide event recognizing the connection between attendance and academic success.

“When students are not in class, they don’t learn, they don’t pass and they don’t get the credits they need to graduate,” said Balfanz.

In June, the United States Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reported that more than 6.5 million students, or 13 percent of those in grades K-12, miss 15 or more days of school. The study marked the first time chronic absenteeism was documented nationwide.

“The data collection from these studies will help us get a better idea of the true extent of the problem,” said Balfanz, a nationally recognized expert on attendance issues. “What is not measured is often not noticed. This has been the case with chronic absenteeism.”

Groups with proportionally higher rates of chronic absenteeism include African Americans, Native Americans and Latino students, as well as students with disabilities. The research shows that many of the factors that keep kids from schools are related to living in poverty: poor housing, poor transportation, exposure to environmental pollutants and higher rates of asthma.

Balfanz points out that all students can be affected by the problem, particularly when chronically absent students show up and teachers have to repeat material.

He is also the founder of the Diplomas Now program that works with at-risk students to improve attendance. A study, published in June by MDRC, an independent research organization, found that Diplomas Now reduced chronic absenteeism by 17 percent for sixth-graders in high-poverty schools.

The program employs a four-part, comprehensive school-reform strategy that includes:

  • creating a positive school culture that makes school a place where students want to be
  • developing an early-warning system to monitor student attendance weekly
  • assigning “success mentors” to students with a history of chronic absenteeism
  • Providing supports for students whose absences can be traced to out-of-school challenges, such as homelessness, substance abuse or mental health issues at home

In January, Balfanz was asked by the Obama Administration to provide research and technical assistance to its “My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative” that is aimed at reducing chronic absenteeism nationwide.

“I’m honored to be a partner in this challenge,” he said. “It’s really a big deal.”

In a White House ceremony three years ago, Balfanz was nominated as a Champion of Change. He told the audience: “My professional work has evolved around figuring out what it will take to enable all of our students to graduate from high school prepared for success. It is driven by the belief that far too many of our students, especially students of color who live in poverty, fail to graduate from high school. It is an affront to what America can and needs to be.”