Late winter – with colds, extended family vacations, and general fatigue – is really a peak period for college absenteeism. Just how can schools best combat this problem?

They're certainly trying – and even for good reason. Absenteeism is associated with lower academic performance, increased dropout, and even higher rates of future incarceration. In reaction towards the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, most states now use reducing absenteeism as one of their core measures of school performance and improvement. For many schools, there's also financial incentives, as some funding is linked to average daily attendance.

With the pressure on to lessen the number of school days missed, many schools have introduced attendance awards to incentivize students.

A couple of years ago, we set out to test this tactic. Together with Jana Gallus at University of California, Los Angeles and Monica Lee at Stanford University, we conducted a randomized controlled experiment involving 15,329 middle and school students across 14 districts in California. These students, who had a perfect month of attendance during the preceding fall semester, were randomly assigned to one of two groups involving awards, or perhaps a control group that received no additional communications and served as the comparison. After January, we sent students within the two award groups a mailing to their homes. One group received a letter informing them when they'd an ideal month of attendance in February, they'd receive a high-quality embossed certificate acknowledging their achievement. The letter the second group received said excitedly they earned an award for having had a perfect month of attendance earlier that school year, and also the certificate was actually enclosed within the mailing.

California Experiment: Sample Mailing

Like the a large number of schools which use similar symbolic awards to motivate students, we predicted they'd reduce absenteeism. In fact, we publicly posted these predictions before analyzing the data.

To our surprise, though, students who earned an award for any past month of perfect attendance missed more school in February than students who didn't earn an award. The award increased the amount of school days students missed by 8 %. Students who have been offered the opportunity to generate the award to have an ideal month of attendance in February showed, on average, no decrease in absences in accordance with the control group. When we checked out these students' absences in March, everybody attended fewer days of school than students who have been never offered the award. In both cases, following the award period was over, student absences increased.

To realise why attendance awards hurt student attendance, we conducted a follow-up survey experiment. The results claim that awards may unintentionally signal to students that they had attended more school than their peers and that they had overshot their schools' expectations for his or her attendance, leaving them feeling licensed to miss school continuing to move forward. To be certain, that one experiment does not claim that all education-related awards are useless or counterproductive. Our exploratory analyses claim that the sale of an award for perfect attendance may slightly motivate junior high school students but not high school students. The intuition that these awards would reduce absenteeism seemed sensible, like a lot of intuitions. Only through rigorous research such as this randomized experiment, though, were we in a position to assess their true impact.

Although the award strategy for improving attendance may backfire, not all interventions targeted at reducing absenteeism are ineffective. Using insights from behavioral science, we have developed and studied interventions which do indeed work as intended. For instance, another randomized field experiment that delivered repeated mailings to students' parents meaningfully reduced the amount of school days students miss every year. The research, conducted by Todd Rogers and by Avi Feller in the University of California, Berkeley, involved the families of over 28,000 students vulnerable to high absenteeism within the School District of Philadelphia.

In the Philadelphia study, parents were randomly allotted to a control group a treadmill of the range of treatment groups that received personalized attendance reports composed of messages encouraging daily attendance plus tailored data elements that aimed to correct two false beliefs widely held by parents. First, parents tend to underestimate their own child's absences by 50 %. That is, if a student has missed 20 times of school, the student's parent tends to believe a student only has missed 10 days. Second, parents – like several people – become a victim of the river Wobegon effect, named following the community described in the radio show \”A Prairie Home Companion,\” where all of the children are thought to be above average. So, when it comes to attendance, parents of scholars who have missed more school than their classmates have a tendency to believe their children have missed the same or fewer days than their classmates. It is understandable for parents to harbor these inaccurate beliefs, considering that it's cognitively difficult to keep accurate tabs on absences because they accumulate over time, parents receive virtually no information about how their children's absences compare to other students, and parents are motivated to consider well of their children (and themselves).

Philadelphia Experiment: Sample Mailing

Sending personalized reports to correct false beliefs about attendance was inspired by behavioral research on energy conservation. Many bills now provide consumers with personalized information on how much energy they use and just how their consumption comes even close to those of their \”most efficient neighbors.\” This strategy has shown to be one of the most effective ways to encourage home energy conservation. When people receive information that corrects their false beliefs, they're motivated to change their behavior to align using their updated beliefs. In the case of energy consumption, people believe they expend the same or less energy than the others because, like attendance, it's difficult to track, not easily comparable, along with a domain where individuals are motivated to consider well of themselves. So, when individuals learn they're using more energy than people they live near, they respond by cutting back their own energy use. Therefore, we hypothesized sending parents a study with up-to-date and accurate info on their child's attendance record several times over the course of the college year would result in parents intervening to lessen the number of school days the youngster missed.

The intervention reduced chronic absenteeism by 11 percent, though different variants from the treatment showed varying effects. The absence-reducing effects were consistent across grades, races and ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic status. Interestingly, the effect spilled over to siblings residing in exactly the same household because the students being targeted through the intervention: increasing one student's attendance increased the attendance of that student's siblings.

Teaming up with Monica Lee and Eric Dearing from Boston College, we conceptually replicated the findings in a second experiment involving almost 11,000 kindergarten through fifth graders in ten California school districts. Although absenteeism is usually touted as a problem emerging in middle and high school, it is usually just like prevalent in the early grades and could have longer-term impacts. Along with correcting parents' false beliefs, we enhanced the treatment by featuring attention-grabbing images and numbers that reinforced the messaging.

The most of parents reported showing the mailing to others in their homes or hanging them on their own refrigerators. This might explain why these two studies of repeated mail-based interventions decrease absenteeism, while other studies suggest absence-interventions using cellphone texts have no detectable effect on the attendance of school-age children. The postal mail-delivered personalized attendance reports reduced absenteeism at a cost of between $5 and $10 per absence avoided. The intervention, which uses already collected student data, is especially cost-effective in contrast to current guidelines that involve mentors and truancy officers. They can cost Fifty to one hundred times more per absence avoided.

Each student absence has its own human story, and meaningfully reducing the number of school days students miss each year will need a wide range of interventions. By systematically evaluating these interventions, some common practices will be unexpectedly debunked. But then we can leverage the science of human behavior to identify new and cost-effective strategies that districts can easily adopt to reduce student absenteeism at scale.

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