Going old-school: Home visits show marked effect on absenteeism and performance

By Andrew Myers

Chronic school absenteeism has been a problem for … well, for as long as there have been schools. In a recent study, Steven Sheldon, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, looked at meeting that age-old challenge head-on with a surprisingly old-school approach: home visits by teachers.

The dramatic upside is that Sheldon has shown that effective home visits are not only associated with reduced chronic absenteeism, but also improve the likelihood students score proficient on English Language Arts (ELA) assessments. What’s more, these results hold for all students at schools where home visits are commonplace, not just for the students who receive home visits.

“The bottom line here is that families play an instrumental role in keeping kids engaged in school,” Sheldon says. “And home visits engage families in their children’s success.” He says the results were evident even in schools where as few as 10 percent of students actually receive visits.

The words “school” and “home visit” in close proximity often conjure images of aggressive, truant officer-type check-ins, but the home visits in Sheldon’s study are nonconfrontational by design. The model, developed by the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, is heavy on the honey, less so on the vinegar.

The home visits Sheldon studied are decidedly nonpunitive. The key concept is for teachers to reach out positively to make initial contact with families from the outset of the school year as a way to develop a strong, working partnership with parents and guardians.

“Trying our hardest to just get them through school, we saw home visits as a way to make sure the families and the schools were on the same page,” Sheldon says.

It’s hard to argue with the results. Schools with systematic home visit programs experienced decreased student absenteeism and saw increased ELA and math proficiency. Not surprisingly, students who received home visits were less chronically absent than those who did not participate—but home visits also seem to have a population-wide benefit. Sheldon says that absenteeism declined at schools where at least 10 percent of families received home visits, along with an increased probability of scoring at or above proficiency on standardized assessments.

The most recent and largest of Sheldon’s studies was conducted in four large, diverse school districts across the country, comprising some 100,000 students conducted in coordination with Parent Teacher Home Visits.

“Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of research on the impact of home visits on attendance and test performance,” Sheldon says.

He adds that many of the students in these districts are disadvantaged. Many are defined as “Title 1” families, according to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Often, they come from low-income families living in poor communities. They are frequently families of color and, many times, immigrants.

“These are the kids who are traditionally most at risk of failing out or dropping out of school and who need every advantage we can give them,” Sheldon adds. Many times, the families are not regularly involved in school activities. They can’t make school open houses and other in-school events because they must work or because of language barriers.

“The teachers are there to listen, not talk.”

The PTHV model is deceptively simple, designed to engage teachers as much as families. The teachers work in pairs, focusing on nonconfrontational relationship building as their primary goal. Educators and families don’t discuss missed classes or poor grades, but rather concentrate on the family’s hopes and dreams. Early intervention before problems arise is key.

Home visit programs should adhere to a few basic rules. First, visits should be arranged ahead of time, not come as unannounced drop-ins. They should be entirely voluntary for educators and families alike. Also, teachers must be trained and paid for visits that occur outside of school hours. Lastly, there should be no targeting of visits to favor particular types of student. Families receiving visits should be chosen entirely at random and be drawn from a cross-section of students, regardless of school.

“There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to the visits,” Sheldon says. “The teachers are there to listen, not talk.”

While the results of these studies are compelling, Sheldon is not yet satisfied. In his next endeavor, he hopes to further study the mechanisms that make home visits so successful. In particular, he’s interested in exploring the indirect relationship that seems to benefit even those who don’t receive home visits.

While family involvement and student outcomes remain his primary interest, there’s another key audience that he cautions should not be overlooked: teachers. Sheldon explains that home visits provide opportunities for teachers to take on new roles and see families in new ways—and he wants to know if those changing responsibilities and relationships are having an impact.

“I’d like to see if there is a feedback loop at play that changes teachers and the students both,” Sheldon says.

In addition to a report on the findings of his home visit study, Sheldon has also recently co-edited a textbook, The Wiley Handbook of Family, School, and Community Relationships in Education, that is available in e-book form and was recently published in hardback in March.

A National Evaluation of Parent Teacher Home Visits 2017-2018

Independent research across four regions by RTI and Johns Hopkins University studied mindset shifts and PTHV, implementation of the PTHV model, and student outcomes and PTHV.