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Lesson 4.8

Don't Miss Class!

When kids miss school, it’s usually because…

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It is easy to think of truancy as a law enforcement issue — a problem of willful teenagers.

But most "truancy" is better thought of as "absenteeism" or just students who miss school. School is compulsory for children in California beginning in first grade, but huge numbers of elementary school children miss an awful lot of school. The reasons are generally mundane. Parents or caregivers fail to get them to school for all sorts of reasons.

Children who miss school can fall behind quickly, and schools are generally not equipped to support family interventions that can make a difference. Parents have a legal responsibility to get their kids to school. Enforcement of attendance is a common area of cooperation between municipalities and school districts.

Did a student miss school? Take it as a warning sign

The school system in California is set up to take attendance very seriously because early absenteeism predicts later problems, including failing to graduate high school. Districts need to address absenteeism early and often.

Read more in the Ed100 blog.

Most kids never miss school, or miss it rarely. When districts focus on improving attendance, as a practical matter they need to focus on students or groups of students who miss school the most, especially in early grades. To help drive focus on this issue, in 2018 California began collecting data about chronic absenteeism in grades K-8 for the California School Dashboard. You can read much more about that in our blog post on Attendance and Absenteeism.

Enrollment vs. Attendance

The school finance system in California has been designed with a powerful incentive to keep students in school: it funds school districts on the basis of Average Daily Attendance (ADA), rather than on the number of students enrolled. This is also a part of the reason why schools take attendance every day. Districts take this very seriously. Most states base funding on enrollment, not attendance — California is one of only a handful of states that enforce attendance through the school finance system.

Because attendance directly affects school district finances, districts have a big incentive to boost it. Investments that increase attendance can pay for themselves quickly if they work. For example, effective attendance-management systems enable school office staff to call parents of absent students by lunchtime.

In 2017-18 about 400,000 California students were are chronically absent, meaning they miss school more than three weeks of the school year. This level of absence from school correlates with all kinds of bad outcomes, including failure to finish high school. According to a 2016 report of the State Attorney General's office, 82% of those in prison in America are high school dropouts.

To find out the absence rate in your school district, check this database from EdSource. Chronic absenteeism data is also available on the California Department of Education (CDE) DataQuest Web site. The reports indicate chronic absenteeism rates of schools and school districts and which student subgroups have the highest chronic absenteeism rates.

AttendanceWorks infographicThe infographic above, from AttendanceWorks, breaks down the risks of chronic absence from school for young students. (Click for full size to see the impact on reading for kids who miss many days in kindergarten and first grade.)

California's strict attendance rules are a hardship for student organizations and athletic groups. For example, even students that serve on school boards or as advisors in school accreditation teams need permission to attend meetings during school hours. School districts receive funding based on attendance; in 2018 each missed day, regardless of the cause, cost the district about $75.

Pandemic Effects

In 2020 the pandemic threw a giant wrench into the connection between funding and attendance. Suddenly, the driving priority was no longer physical attendance, but online engagement. Huge numbers of students lacked access to a computing device or the internet. Even in normal times, students in poverty or living in rural areas tend to miss school at a higher rate, which in turn suppresses school funding in those areas. Attendance was designed into California's education finance system in the middle of the 20th century. In the context of the pandemic, leaders began re-evaluating a long-discussed change to using enrollment-based funding formulas, as a majority of states do.


For older students, sometimes missing school is a result of their behavior. Out of school suspensions and expulsions are a tool that schools use to punish students and maintain order in schools. However, these disciplinary approaches also keep kids from learning, especially those kids whose achievement is of the greatest concern.

Johnny's not in class
a canary in the mind
empty chairs can pass
a silent warning sign

The California Endowment has been a leading voice in creating a movement to find other ways to address student misbehavior. They argue that suspensions are largely counterproductive, and that it is better to "suspend" students in a way that keeps them in a learning environment. A study of school suspension practices by the ACLU in 2018 found that students in America miss about 11 million days of school annually due to suspensions. The rate of suspensions is significantly lower in California than in other states, but varies by county.

Next Steps

Parents and PTAs can help get kids to class on time and not miss school. 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. Attendance Works provides useful web-based handouts for pre-school, elementary, middle and high school in several languages.

This lesson concludes the Ed100 coverage of the topic of Time as a lever for educational success. This is a good moment to reiterate the organizing framework of Ed100: Education is Students and Teachers spending Time in Places for Learning with the Right Stuff in a System with Resources for Success. So Now What?

The next series of lessons picks up the topic of places for learning, including primers about neighborhood schools, charter schools, and learning beyond the classroom.

Updated July 2017, Dec 2017, Jan 2018, Oct 2018, June 2019, May 2020.


Regarding attendance, which ONE statement is FALSE:

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Questions & Comments

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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
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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