Social Innovation

Thinking Big To Solve Chronic Absenteeism

05.17.24 | 4 min read | Text by Sara Schapiro

Across the country in small towns and large cities, rural communities and the suburbs, millions of young people are missing school at astounding rates. They’re doing it with such frequency that educators are now tracking “chronic absenteeism.” 

It’s an important issue the White House is prioritizing. On May 15, the Biden-Harris Administration will host a summit on addressing chronic absenteeism. You can watch the livestream here, starting at 9:30 am ET.

This brand of truancy – where students are absent more than 10 percent of the time – is a problem in every state: Between 2018 and 2022, rates of chronic absenteeism nearly doubled, meaning an estimated 6.5 million more students are chronically absent today than six years ago. The New York Times recently reported that “something fundamental has shifted in American childhood and the culture of school, in ways that may be long lasting.”

But, like so many other issues in our country, chronic absenteeism hits some places harder than others. According to the non-profit organization Attendance Works, students from low-income and under-served communities are “much more likely to be enrolled in schools facing extreme levels of chronic absence.” When Attendance Works crunched the numbers, it found that in schools where at least 75 percent of students received a free or reduced-price lunch, the rates of chronic absenteeism nearly tripled, increasing from 25 percent to 69 percent between 2017 and 2022.

This alarming trend has educators and policymakers scrambling for solutions, from better bus routes to automated messaging systems for parents to “early warning” attendance tracking. These are important pursuits, but alone they won’t solve the problem.

Why? Because experts and research show that chronic absenteeism is only a symptom of a larger, more complex problem. For too many young people of color, school can be out of touch with the lives they live, so they’ve stopped going, to the point that experts predict that attendance rates won’t return to pre-COVID levels until 2030.

In these schools, the curriculum can lack rigor and their inflexible policies can harm students’ mental health and stifle the inquisitive optimism they might otherwise bring to school each day. Enrichment programs are few and far between, and students lack meaningful relationships with faculty and staff. For many kids, school is irrelevant and unwelcoming. 

If schools and policymakers want to solve the problem of chronic absenteeism – particularly in under-served communities – then they must invest in new ideas, research, and tools that will make school a place where kids feel welcomed and engaged, and where learning is relevant. In short, a school needs to be a place where kids want to be. Every. Single. Day.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents know this, and they work to make their schools and classrooms warm, fun, and challenging. But they are swimming against the tide, and they cannot be expected to do this alone. The U.S. must direct and support its brightest minds and boldest innovators to attack this problem. It can do so by making a national investment in research and development efforts to explore new approaches to learning.

The U.S. has already made a big bet on innovation for sectors like defense and health – and in space exploration in the 1960s when JFK challenged the nation to put men on the moon. This kind of “imagine if…” R&D has not yet been applied to education. 

Let’s create a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), inspired by DARPA, the R&D engine behind the Internet and GPS. This new center would enable informed-risk, high-reward R&D to come up with new approaches and systems that would make learning relevant and fun. It could also produce innovations and creative new ways to increase family engagement – a big factor that contributes to absenteeism – improve access to technology, and even test and assess alternative discipline programs aimed at keeping kids in school rather than suspending them.

As one example, a study shows that texting parents with attendance tips and alerts effectively reduces absenteeism. Another study worked with a school district to send over 32,000 texts to families and saw attendance increase by 15 percent.

As the nation’s schools face the daunting task of post-COVID recovery, efforts to stem chronic absenteeism that tinker around the edges won’t solve the problem. NCADE could drive the transformative solutions that are needed with a nimble, multidisciplinary approach to advance bold, “what if…” R&D projects based on their potential to transform education. 

Consider the possibilities of virtual reality. In partnership with edtech startup Transfr, several Boys & Girls Clubs are leveraging virtual reality to help students plan for their future careers. With VR technology, students can peek into a cell or stand on a planet’s surface. Imagine if NCADE could further develop an early concept for an AI-assisted “make your own song” program for students with speech-language development challenges. Or, it could support the creation of customized, culturally relevant assessments, made possible through machine learning, that make test-taking less intimidating. 

Chronic absenteeism is a complex problem caused by a number of factors, but the theme running through all of them is that for too many students, schools don’t offer the types of learning opportunities or supports that make learning engaging, meaningful, and relevant to their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s act boldly to harness innovation and make school inviting, accessible, and worthwhile for all students.