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Lesson 4.8

Don't Miss School!

When kids miss school, it’s usually because…

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School attendance is mandatory for children in California beginning in first grade, but huge numbers of kids miss an awful lot of school. Chronic absenteeism is a corrosive problem in education, and the COVID-19 Pandemic made it a lot worse.

There’s a lot to know about school attendance, and this lesson breaks it down. Why is attendance important, and how do we know? How is attendance measured? What is chronic absenteeism? Why is attendance a bigger issue in California than in most other states? What can be done to improve it?

Why is school attendance important?

Let’s start with the obvious: when kids miss school, they fall behind. The resulting problems are cumulative — and contagious. It’s difficult for teachers to move a class of learners forward together under the best of circumstances. It’s extra hard to do so while also catching students up on lessons they missed.

The connections between learning and attendance have been exhaustively studied. AttendanceWorks, a non-profit organization focused on this issue, has collected mounds of evidence about it. Over time, kids who regularly miss class become more and more at risk of failure, which comes with huge costs.

Most kids don't drop out of school as a sudden, dramatic, rebellious choice. Something causes them to miss a day or two. Then maybe they show up less, then even less, and at a certain point the prospect of trying to catch up is too demoralizing.

When kids miss class, it’s serious. Alarm bells should go off.

What is chronic absenteeism?

25% of California students missed more than three weeks of school in 2022-23

Students are officially deemed chronically absent if they have missed 10% or more of instructional days since the beginning of the school term. The term is intended to be non-judgmental — there can be many reasons for kids to miss school, including prolonged illness. At the end of a 180-day school year, a student is deemed chronically absent if they missed at least 18 school days, the cumulative equivalent of more than three weeks of school.

To state the obvious, that’s a lot of missed school.

Even before the Pandemic, chronic absenteeism was a huge problem. In a typical pre-COVID year, about 750,000 California students (12%) were chronically absent. Let that sink in, because those were the good old days. In the Pandemic, chronic absence rates skyrocketed — and in 2023 they were double the pre-COVID norm. 25% of California students were chronically absent in 2022-23, with big variations: provides outstanding analysis of state data about education. Click the chart above to find the data for your county, district, and school.

Predictably, kids fell behind. Of course! Test scores in California slumped. visually summarizes state test scores over time with detail for student subgroups. Click the image above to find the data for your county, district, and school.

What is truancy?

Many absences fall under the broad meaning of truancy — missing school without a defensible reason. In California, students are officially truant if they miss more than 30 minutes of instruction on three days of school without an excuse. Families are supposed to receive a notification of some kind if a student misses enough school to meet this nip-it-in-the-bud threshold.

Many dislike the term truant because it implies that the student has done something wrong. As a practical matter, most kids rely on help from a parent or someone else to get to school. Because truancy is a warning signal for child neglect, it can serve as a basis for a referral to Child Protective Services.

Parents and legal guardians in California can be fined for failing to get their kids to school. When Vice President Kamala Harris was Attorney General of California, she spoke often about enforcing school attendance laws.

How does California count students differently from other states?

In all states, funding flows to school districts in some proportion to the number of students to be educated. But the particulars differ from place to place.

For the purpose of allocating funds, most states count students on the basis of enrollment — the number of students who are supposed to show up to school. California and a few other states count students on the basis of Average Daily Attendance (ADA), which includes only students who actually show up. It’s a very significant difference: If kids don’t come to school in California, the district doesn’t get money for them.

How is attendance counting different from enrollment?

Some argue that it is essential to fund schools on the basis of attendance, because it creates a financial incentive to get every kid to school every day. Because the incentive is massive, it makes financial sense for school districts to invest in technology, staff, programs and interventions that can boost attendance. Technology investments that help districts increase attendance can pay for themselves quickly — if they work. For example, effective attendance management systems enable school office staff to call parents if their students aren’t in school by a specific time.

Others argue that attendance-based funding is fundamentally unfair and excessively punitive. In wealthy communities it’s pretty easy to get kids to school consistently — should they be financially rewarded for it? If so, by how much? Should the incentive be 100%, as it is now, or something less, or zero? During the COVID-19 pandemic, school attendance counts became meaningless. With temporary federal support, California funded school districts with a system of bubble gum and chicken wire.

At the time of this writing (November 2023) it seems very likely that California will consider dumping attendance-based school funding in favor of a membership-based model, like most states use. (Membership is basically jargon for enrollment.)

What is an excused absence?

California law defines specific reasons why a school district might consider a student absence excused. The reasons include attending a medical appointment, a funeral, or an educational conference for student leaders, such as the SABLE conference offered by the California Association of Student Councils.

It’s important to understand that from a revenue perspective, there is no distinction between an excused absence and an unexcused one. In California, funds flow to districts on the basis of attendance, not attendance-plus-excused-absences. When a district excuses an absence, it doesn’t receive monetary compensation for doing so.

Are students counted absent if they are suspended from school?

Yes. In an attendance-based school funding system like California’s, districts (LEAs) receive funding only for students in attendance. When schools suspend students from attending school, they sacrifice the daily attendance funding for that student. Schools, districts and county offices of education can formally encourage and enforce school attendance through organizations known as School Attendance Review Boards (SARBs).

The topic of school discipline is addressed in Ed100 Lesson 5.13, including alternatives to suspension, the meaning of willful defiance and more.

What can schools do to improve attendance?

Maybe your school already has the goal of ensuring that all kids attend school, every day. If so, bravo — but consider a slightly more personal framing: think of it as a goal for each student, each day.

The things that keep students from showing up at school can vary wildly. Each student and each family has to solve for the things that get in the way. With focus, love and firmness, schools can help address those barriers. The challenge, of course, is the sheer volume of absences: how can schools address massive absenteeism effectively?

Attendance Works, a national non-profit organization, offers a treasure trove of strategies and materials for parents and school districts to combat chronic absences. The California office of the Attorney General, which also focuses on reducing absenteeism, recommends a three-tiered intervention strategy:

When communicating about school attendance, schools are wise to choose their words with care. Research demonstrates that small, cost-free changes in wording can make a big difference, and that scolding parents doesn’t tend to work nearly as well as encouraging them.

Next Steps

From creating a regular bedtime routine to making sure backpacks are ready to go in the morning, time-proven strategies really work, if parents know about them. PTAs can help parents learn about the importance of getting to class on time and not missing school. Attendance Works provides useful web-based handouts for preschool, elementary, middle and high school in several languages.

PTAs can also help improve attendance by making schools welcoming for everyone. In 2023, the National PTA released a set of multicultural guides in English and Spanish to support local PTAs in this work.

This lesson concludes chapter 4 of Ed100, which examined the use and importance of time in education — the when of learning. Chapter 5 addresses the where of learning.

Updated November 2023


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Genee Woodson November 30, 2023 at 7:30 am
Attendance matters to the point of students can't learn something they are never taught. However, private schools, incl. homeschools, have proven that reaching students does not revolve around formal instruction, which is a strictly attendance based model. Reaching students is their first priority. Teaching them is the second. Private school models are showing more retention in learning regardless of attendance rates (which are far more flexible). Students learn more in 3 hours than they learn in 7 hours from the public school model. Forgetting everything we're told is school to focus on learning what school is to the students in each and every class will produce better interest in learning with more relevant differentiated techniques the students can use (even when absent), and will go a long way in lowering absenteeism long term.
user avatar
Roman Stearns November 27, 2023 at 4:30 pm
This article and AttendanceWorks treats attendance as the problem. I’d suggest that it’s more of a symptom of an outdated education system where the majority of students are not engaged because they see little relevance to their futures. For a more thoughtful explanation, see this recent EdSource commentary.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 8:00 pm
California’s Nutrition Safety Net
from the Public Policy Institute of California

The state’s three largest nutrition programs—CalFresh, WIC, and school meals—serve almost 4 million California households. This fact sheet offers a snapshot of these programs and their impact on poverty.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 7:00 pm
Attendance Works and PACE released the report Examining Disparities in Unexcused Absences Across California Schools which shows how overuse of the “unexcused” label for absences could be deepening education inequities and interfering with efforts to improve attendance.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 24, 2023 at 4:40 pm

Absenteeism and Truancy in California Schools: PACE March 2023

The report makes several recommendations, including using attendance data to identify disparities and bright spots; strengthening monitoring of reasons for absences; updating policies related to unexcused absences; improving communication of attendance policies to students and families; and investing in professional development to improve attendance practices.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 24, 2023 at 4:40 pm

Absenteeism and Truancy in California Schools: PACE March 2023

The report makes several recommendations, including using attendance data to identify disparities and bright spots; strengthening monitoring of reasons for absences; updating policies related to unexcused absences; improving communication of attendance policies to students and families; and investing in professional development to improve attendance practices.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 2:11 pm
Absences related to pandemic and declining enrollment

The state 2022-23 Budget invests $2.8 billion ongoing and $413 million one-time Proposition 98 General Fund to cushion the financial blow of increased absences.

The Budget allows school districts to use the greater of current year or prior year average daily attendance or an average of the three prior years’ average daily attendance to calculate LCFF funding.

The Budget also enables all classroom-based local educational agencies that can demonstrate they provided independent study offerings in fiscal year 2021-22 to be funded at the greater of their current year average daily attendance or their current year enrollment adjusted for pre-COVID-19 absence rates in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 2:03 pm
The 2022-23 state invests $2.8 billion ongoing and $413 million one-time Proposition 98 General Fund to help schools struggling with loss of revenue because of absences related to the pandemic and declining enrollment.

The Budget allows school districts to use the greater of current year or prior year average daily attendance or an average of the three prior years’ average daily attendance to calculate LCFF funding.

The Budget enables all classroom-based local educational agencies that can demonstrate they provided independent study offerings to students in 2021-22 to be funded at the greater of their current year average daily attendance or their current year enrollment adjusted for pre-COVID-19 absence rates in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 12:50 pm
Attendance-Based Funding for Schools: LAO Fiscal Outlook Attendance Projections
Three Major Drivers of LAO Projected Attendance Changes
• Longstanding declines in the school aged population. Project a reduction of 170,000 students by 2025-26.
• Recovery of pandemic-related declines. Assume increase equivalent to 140,000 students by 2025-26.
• Increased Transitional Kindergarten enrollment. Assume 230,000 additional students by 2025-26.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 12:40 pm
Enrollment and Attendance Declines Have Been Steeper During the Pandemic. Private school enrollment data do not suggest large shifts in enrollment from public to private schools. These enrollment declines, however, have now occurred for two consecutive years and may suggest a steeper decline in enrollment than previously anticipated. The Legislature will want to continue to monitor attendance data as it decides how to best allocate school funding and consider whether changes should be made in response to these trends. Source: The Legislative Analyst sets out the data.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 23, 2022 at 11:40 pm
Is there a better way to measure student absenteeism?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:11 pm
Showing Up Matters for R.E.A.L.
A Toolkit for Communicating with Students and Families This toolkit is designed to help educators and their community partners integrate attention to attendance and engagement into school daily operations. The goal is not to add more work to school staff who are stretched thin, but to enhance the effectiveness of what they already do.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 13, 2022 at 7:03 am
Measurements of attendance correlate strongly with wealth/poverty measures. To make sense of which schools do well at getting high attendance relative to comparable schools?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 17, 2022 at 5:07 pm
Few states base funding on attendance, not enrollment. Should California switch to join the norm? Carol explains why this question matters in How should students be counted on the Ed100 blog. Writing for PACE, Carrie Hahnel closely analyzes pros and cons against ten relevant goals. She finds scant evidence that a financial incentive at the state level makes ANY difference in whether kids show up to school.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 23, 2021 at 10:39 pm
Another issue cause by the pandemic is absenteeism based on COVID/contact.

When I tested positive for COVID, my children missed 8 days of school to quarantine although I was isolated and they tested negative.

It makes complete sense from a health standpoint of keeping others safe, but it can still feel devastating to consider the impact.

Children are now also required to stay home if they have runny noses, etc because it could be a symptom.

We are now faced with health vs attendance and because of state requirements, not allowed to have access to online class time.
user avatar
Benjamin Lemasters Tahir March 13, 2021 at 9:44 pm
Research shows it is harmful for students to miss class, research also shows opening up schools is completely safe, even without the vaccine. So why are schools still shut down?
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 5, 2019 at 2:58 pm
I grew up with a family that believed you don’t miss school unless it is absolutely critical. I was shocked when I learned that there are families who pulled her kids out of school for vacation. I was extra surprised when I saw it happen during the first month of school at my privileged district here in Burbank. A friend of mine pulled out her kindergartner for a week’s vacation without thinking twice. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that my privileged friends’ kids are not being set back by these days of missing school, since they have no special needs. But in the end, maybe it will be a case of the tortoise and the hare.
user avatar
Anoush Voskanian November 20, 2019 at 4:37 pm
Responsible parenting brings out responsible children. I've seen that a lot too.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 1:09 pm
One of the things I admire about Head Start is that it works hard to educate parents on the importance of the child not missing for reasons other than illness: it's raining! let's go to Disneyland! I'm late for work so just stay home with Gramma! This goes to the cumulative effect of education (critical in math I might add) in the short and long haul. I may sound like a grumpy old lady, but I think time management is a big part of the problem. So many parents seem incapable of organizing sufficiently to get themselves and their kids out of the house in time. The kids are dependent on the adults to get to school (at least through MS if not HS) and the parents fail miserably.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 23, 2018 at 10:49 pm
Could dirty clothes be one reason why some kids miss school? After amassing some evidence to that effect, Whirlpool (the company that makes laundry machines) began giving grants through a program they call Care Counts. With Teach for America, the company tested a program to add laundry facilities to schools in high poverty communities. They observed significant gains.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 1:13 pm
I suspect things like this (hadn't heard of it but it makes sense) are factors with absenteeism as opposed to just being chronically tardy which is a time management issue first and foremost but also a prioritizing issue. I think in a different comment I conflated absenteeism with tardiness--but both contribute to a gap as well as an attitude towards school (cavalier) and then work possibly.
user avatar
nkbird August 9, 2018 at 5:10 pm
Boy oh boy do I see this is my role as a reading intervention specialist! Health issues, of course, problems with kids being "too tired for school" because they are up too late (for reasons both avoidable like lack of limits and unavoidable like work schedules)... And then of course parents of kids who are struggling who feel they "need a break." Sigh.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 20, 2018 at 2:46 pm
From The 74:

Can a Few Simple Letters Home Reduce Chronic Absenteeism? New Research Shows They Can

Read it here here

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 28, 2018 at 5:58 pm
If students skip class to join a protest, do schools lose funding, which is based on attendance? In 2018 Sacramento policy leaders tried to provide districts with a legal way out: connect the protests with an educational purpose.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 6, 2017 at 11:39 am
Chronic absences remained a bit above 10 per cent in 2016-17. Foster, homeless, Native American, and African American children have the highest rates.

Learn more in this article from EdSource:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2017 at 11:15 am
Chalkbeat Reports:
"As districts across the country try to drive down absenteeism, New York City leads the way'"
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm
RELATED to this lesson on the Ed100 blog:
Attendance: A Measure of School Success
Missing just two days of school in a month is a key warning sign for trouble. Yes, there are some things your school can do about it.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 2:48 pm
Update on Chronic Absences in California from the California Attorney General...
In School + On Track 2016
"An estimated 210,000 K-5 students in California are chronically absent – missing 10% of the school year – making up 7.3% of elementary school students in the state."
"Chronic absence rates are disproportionately high for certain groups of students and are concentrated in a small number of schools and districts:
• 77% of all chronically absent students are low-income
• The chronic absence rate for African American students (14%) is 2X the rate for all students
• 50% of chronically absent students in our sample attend 20% of schools and 10% of districts; 25% attend 7% of schools and 3% of districts."
"In 2013, just over half of districts surveyed said they tracked student attendance data over time. In 2016, 85% of districts reported that they do."
Find the report here:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 4:14 pm
New Data Illuminates the Extent of Chronic Absenteeism
An inter-active web resource from the US Department of Education takes a close look at which groups of students are more likely to be chronically absent. The data is drawn from nearly every public school in the country and helps us understand who is chronically absent, at what grade levels chronic absenteeism tends to occur, and how chronic absenteeism compares community-by-community and state-by-state.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 5, 2016 at 1:31 pm
In 2016, California's State Board of Education began requiring collection of statewide data about school attendance. Amazingly, this data had not been collected previously.
Santa Ana Unified School District (one of the CORE districts) has begun experimenting with ways to improve attendance, which is reported on the district's School Quality Improvement Index. (Yep, it's really called the "squee".) The district began operating a Saturday School for chronically absent students to make up for days missed. The curriculum for Saturday School is evolving: the point is to increase the chance that students at risk will decide that school is worth showing up for. Data in the SQII will help to evaluate the program's effectiveness.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2015 at 11:24 am
Attendance and Chronic Absence: LCAP Template
The California Attorney General’s Office has created suggestions for school districts for inclusion in their LCAP's to address attendance and chronic absence issues.
user avatar
Stacey W April 6, 2015 at 8:50 pm
I like what my child's elementary school did for addressing student absences. If your child was absent during the month, they were invited to "Saturday school". Kids would participate in enrichment activities or they could bring their homework if they needed assistance. RSVP's were requested. Attending Saturday school erased one of the absent days (for which the school received funding) and the child could receive tutoring. This was especially helpful during the flu season and sometimes students missed quite a few days.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 27, 2015 at 9:06 am
That does sounds like a good plan.
user avatar
aimeef23 April 27, 2015 at 4:09 pm
Our school has the same program. Seems to benefit both the student and the school.
user avatar
JH McConnell October 19, 2015 at 11:25 pm
If these "Saturday school" days were truly for the benefit of the student and not just a way for the school to increase its state funding they would be a good idea. A student out for a week or two because of the flu might need some extra instruction, or not, depending on what the teacher was covering, and how easy the material was for that particular student.
user avatar
cnuptac March 22, 2015 at 6:44 pm
I had no idea if a young child misses school just a few day each year that it would cause them to get behind so much in reading and that by 4th it shows up
user avatar
JH McConnell October 19, 2015 at 11:08 pm
I don't understand your assertion that missing a few days in school would cause a student to fall behind in reading. This unless you are talking about a first grader, which is where reading skills should be acquired. Once the student learns to sound out words, and reads enough to recognize the more common words, everything after that is simply building vocabulary.
user avatar
Genee Woodson November 30, 2023 at 7:36 am
They don't fall behind in reading or any other skill due to absence. We know this because there are millions of students who do attend regularly and are falling behind regardless, being pushed through grade to grade without foundational skills mastered.
user avatar
Rob M April 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm
If a student is not in school he or she can’t learn. And early absenteeism is a strong predictor of failing to graduate high school. Districts need to address absenteeism early and often. This is an area where we can learn from other states by implementing improved student information systems. For example, Texas is in the process of updating its student information to ensure that every teacher and parent can have instant access to their student’s information including recent attendance. Their data system immediately flags students who are having an attendance problem so that the school administration, teacher and parents all know that there is a problem. This collaborative approach leads to shared ownership of the problem, and quicker corrections instead of the problem going unaddressed.
Having the state create incentives for districts to focus energy on increasing attendance is important. At the same time, the state’s finance system will need to focus on more more than just seat time for schools to be able to take advantage of new learning opportunities such as distance learning or self-paced learning. In the end what we care about is how much students learn, not whether they have lots of seat time. This will be a difficult policy balance to retain the important focus on attendance while allowing districts to experiment with alternative methods of instruction.
user avatar
JH McConnell October 19, 2015 at 11:18 pm
I strongly disagree with your assertion that "if a student is not in school he or she can't learn." It is true that if a student is not is school that the school doesn't get paid for that day. A few days off now and again isn't likely to harm the student, except as he or she is punished by the teacher or the school. This especially if the days off are to accompany a parent somewhere on a long weekend.

There is some truth, however, that students who are not going to school may resist going to school because they are not doing well there. In that case not going to school is an indicator of an existing problem, and not the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem may very well be inadequate or ineffective teachers or sub-standard instructional material.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 20, 2015 at 9:58 am
Perhaps "can't" overstates the case, JH. This lesson isn't intended to make a fringe argument that "a few days off" automatically predicts a student's academic doom. The point is that a pattern of missed class tends to be an indicator of something wrong, especially for young students. There is a powerful predictive connection between early absenteeism (parents don't get their child to school) and later problems. Patterns like this are important to address.
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:30 pm
Children get ill at times during the year where they may miss more than three days in a school year. I understand the importance of our children attending school, but this whole section seems unreasonable!
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