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More kids are missing school. But it’s a problem we can solve

It’s simple logic: If a student isn’t in school, they can’t learn. And if they’re not learning, they’re not making academic progress.

Education experts and advocates have long said we need to prevent “chronic absenteeism,” where students miss more than 15 days of school a year. But data has been hard to come by — making solutions even harder to find.

Last week, the Department of Education released comprehensive data on absenteeism nationwide. In Ed Week, Evie Blad says the data is based on a new question added to a DOE biennial survey of districts and schools. Instead of relying on the states’ historically inconsistent data, we now have a national benchmark.

So, what do the results tell us?

Breaking down the numbers
The new federal data, along with a new interactive website, show us that chronic absenteeism is as real a problem as education experts feared.

As Blad reports, 13 percent of students in the U.S. missed at least 15 days in the 2013-2014 school year. That’s more than 6 million students. In 500 districts, 30 percent of students hit that threshold.

And the numbers show which students are more likely to become chronically absent, including:

  • Older students
    19 percent of high schoolers were chronically absent, compared with 12 percent of middle schoolers and 10 percent of elementary school students.
  • Students with disabilities
    17 percent of students with disabilities were chronically absent, compared with 12 percent of non-disabled students.
  • American Indian students
    Of all the racial and ethnic groups, American Indian students were the most chronically absent at 22 percent.

The bottom line
We now know that chronic absenteeism impacts all states, ages, and ethnic groups. And the consequences can be severe.

Says Ed Secretary John King: “Chronic absenteeism is a national problem. Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child’s education. Missing school leads to low academic achievement and triggers drop outs. Millions of young people are missing opportunities in postsecondary education, good careers and a chance to experience the American dream.”

Can we solve this?
Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an advocacy group that fights school absences, calls chronic absenteeism a national crisis. But she also says it’s a “solvable problem.”

The solution, she says, starts with awareness.

Students and, more importantly, their families need to understand how critical regular school attendance is. In-person meetings, education initiatives, and regular emails and phone calls are all opportunities for schools to share the consequences of missed lessons.

There are some common reasons for missing school — health issues, lack of dental care, housing problems, unreliable transportation — but every district has unique challenges.

Engage your community to better understand what obstacles might keep students in your district out of school — and how you can overcome them.

Understanding the problem’s root causes will help you develop an effective — and workable — solution.

Is chronic absenteeism a problem in your district? What strategies have you used to address it? Tell us in the comments. To see more data and recommendations from the Department of Education, check out the full study.

Want to dive deeper? A school survey will get you started.