Too many students are missing too much time at school. With the California School Dashboard’s new indicator on absenteeism, we now know that 11 percent of elementary and middle school students in California were chronically absent last year, which means they were out of school for at least 1 in 10 school days. These students fall behind on learning and schools lose financial resources.
Our teachers and administrators are committed to closing these gaps, but they need the right tools — and data — to do it.
While data should not be used to pigeonhole students with academic labels such as “proficient,” “remedial,” or “chronically absent,” we can and should use data to help schools shed light on the systems, policies and home-life circumstances that are helping or hindering student success.
It’s not enough to know which students are falling behind or missing school. The more important questions are: Why are they falling behind? And what can we do about it?
To tackle these questions, United Way of San Diego County launched the Every Student, Every Day initiative. Under this program, United Way provides support to a school’s attendance team — a cross section of school staff who meet regularly and work together to improve attendance. These teams often include the principal, school nurse, attendance clerk and school counselor.
Traditionally, these teams simply printed lists of who missed school and jotted notes about calling home or mailing a letter to a family. Often the data were out of date and staff had to toggle between multiple systems and reports. Sometimes notes got lost and action steps were missed. There was no system to track which interventions were used or if they even made a difference.
Additionally, teachers, nurses, counselors, principals and other staff held valuable information about why kids were absent — a sick parent, the family moved, chronic illness, or a student who feels bullied — but the school lacked a system to log and use this data.
To address this, United Way, with support from the Tableau Foundation, helped schools and their attendance teams create a system to bring together the relevant data sources to get the complete picture. The attendance teams now access a data dashboard that provides all the essential information with one click: Who is missing school and why — e.g. illness, unexcused, transportation challenges, or any number of other reasons? What strategies have been deployed? And are those students’ attendance rates trending up or down?
Now, the attendance teams develop interventions based on the reasons that students are actually missing school and design multi-tiered responses to work both responsively and preventatively.
Preventative measures include activities like schoolwide attendance rallies and classroom competitions with awards and incentives for the students with the best or most improved attendance. Responsive interventions range from phone calls home to check in, to home visits conducted by the school counselors or principals, to medical support from the school nurse in cases where there is a health concern.
With this data-driven process in place, the attendance team can use the right intervention with the right student, all informed by the data they are now tracking. With strategies that are showing promise to improve attendance, the team is studying each intervention to understand the essential elements and build protocols that can help replicate its success for other students, and potentially other schools and districts.
Key to the success of the teams are a few core components: the school leadership’s commitment to making improving attendance a priority, regular meetings where all staff can access and use real-time data and a focus on continuous improvement. Through this process, the whole school is engaged in executing data-driven strategies.
United Way is now assisting 16 schools across two school districts and hopes to introduce these practices to school attendance teams in more schools and districts across San Diego County.
This data-driven approach can work for addressing other areas of need as well:
- Professional Learning Communities — groups of educators that meet regularly, share learning and expertise and work together to improve their skills as well as the academic performance of students — can apply the same data-driven practices as school attendance teams to zero in on strategies to support student learning.
- Restorative practice teams can use this approach to data to study and prevent suspensions and expulsions.
- And trauma-informed schools, which are focused on rethinking how they support the social-emotional needs of their students, can deploy data to examine changes in school culture and climate to improve behavioral supports.
In some communities this approach is catching on and showing great promise in better supporting students. No matter the focus area, this process takes a willingness to ask hard questions, admit we are failing some students, change practices and establish a culture of using data to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. This needs to be our “new normal.”
Data alone is not the answer, but it is a powerful tool to inform the right questions to drive effective decision making. Having schools, districts and cross-sector partners use data to identify mistakes, change behaviors and better serve students and their families is what it really takes to see change and close gaps.
Debbie Lieberman is director, strategy and evaluation and Tia Anzellotti is vice president, partnerships at United Way of San Diego County.