Baltimore Schools CEO Andrés Alonso accomplished something quite remarkable when he released the results of the latest state test scores last week. He went beyond the usual analysis to look at what happens to city students who are missing 20 or more days of school.
The chronically absent students scored 15 to 20 percentage points lower than students who attended school more regularly — a bigger achievement gap than the one separating either poor students and English language learners from their peers.
These absentee students aren't all truants, willfully skipping school. They are often children who have chronic health problems, unreliable transportation, unstable housing or even no home at all. In many cases, their absences are excused. But with excused and unexcused absences taken together, more than 11 percent of Baltimore elementary students, 18 percent of middle graders and a whopping 42 percent of high schoolers missed a month or more of school.
National research shows that, even in the early grades, missing that much school depresses achievement. And studies done by Johns Hopkins researchers link chronic absence among older students to failed courses, student disengagement and ultimately dropping out.
Alonso properly recognizes that the city must improve attendance rates to drastically improve achievement and curb the dropout rate. As he told The Baltimore Sun this week, "You can talk about teaching and learning all you want. If the kids aren't in school, it's not going to happen."
His decision to highlight attendance puts Baltimore at the forefront of an issue that is just starting to gain educators' attention elsewhere. Currently, most school districts nationwide measure average daily attendance or truancy. But those measures don't tell the whole story. They don't, for instance, tell how many students have excellent attendance and how many have very poor attendance — factors that vary widely by grade level and school and are essential to developing a targeted and effective attendance strategy.
Baltimore is taking advantage of its access to more detailed data to do just that. For the past year, a coalition of city, school, nonprofit and community leaders, spearheaded by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, has been examining all available attendance data, best practices nationwide and community input to understand and address school attendance.
This initiative has been aided by other district reforms, particularly the adoption of new suspension policies and the shifting of students to K-8 and 6-12 campuses, which have cut the chronic absence rate for students in middle grades in half. Absences are down in elementary and high schools, as well, though they are still much higher, on average, than in Maryland's other school districts.
In the year ahead, the school district plans to launch a campaign that targets attendance with posters — created by students to make the case for daily attendance to their peers — as well as greater use of attendance incentives, and an early warning system that flags poor attendees for support. With coordination and support from the Safe and Sound Campaign, other nonprofits are gearing up to help with attendance challenges experienced by homeless kids, foster children and special education students.
Additionally, Baltimore's Family League is requiring its after-school providers to recruit chronically absent students in an effort to encourage better attendance, and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance is instituting a cell-phone-based "texting" campaign that will help students track transportation problems keeping them from getting to and from school.
Statewide, the Attendance Counts initiative, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is analyzing attendance data and working to encourage other Maryland school districts to follow Baltimore's example by making high attendance a priority.
In many ways, attendance is a superstar measure of school performance: It's easily understood, recorded daily, and critically important to student success. Good attendance is also a habit that is invaluable to later success. Parents, schools and communities should follow Alonso's lead, pay attention to attendance and teach children that in school, as in life, showing up matters.