3 fundamental ways attendance data can help teachers tackle absenteeism

Article by Rachel Bush

In 2017-18, less than 20% of the schools offered distance education i.e., offering any course entirely online. In fall 2020, this turned on its head. Schools were pushed to offer online education to the 56.4 million students estimated to attend elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States. Teachers, who were used to engaging with students in person in a classroom, needed to adapt to teaching through a video conferencing tool.

However, adapting to technology is only one part of it and teachers are already growing to be somewhat comfortable with the medium. The bigger challenge is the lack of visibility into their students’ learning. In a classroom, a teacher is likely to notice repeated absences, observe body language for disengagement, correlate this with performance and so on — tacitly as part of their everyday job. While conducting classes on video conferencing, this can be more difficult to pick up.

And then, there is the issue of what counts as attendance: Would merely filling an online form show that students are actually attending classes? “We just saw a huge disruption in both our systems of data collection and reporting and our very notion of what is attendance and how it’s defined,” Paige Kowalski of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign recently told EdWeek.

Yet, it is a widely accepted fact that attendance data is critical and powerful. Given that absence for more than 10% of the school year is treated as ‘chronic absenteeism’, which has a significant impact on student performance, it is important to track student attendance to ensure their success.

This was true before the pandemic. It’s truer now. Because reliable attendance data can:

1. Identify patterns and risks

“Between one and three million students have not attended school since March 2020,” writes Alexandra Ball of the Data Quality Campaign. A disproportionate number of these are from marginalized communities such as students who are differently-abled, experiencing homelessness, and people of color.

Remote attendance data can help identify at-risk students in time to prevent chronic absence. It can enable teachers to notice patterns of absences for each student, understand their challenges, and extend support on time. For instance, if a student is regularly missing classes every morning, it’s likely because they’re caring for a sibling or don’t have access to a computer at the time. A teacher who notices this pattern can talk to the student about their availability and offer alternate schedules.

It also helps teachers design compensatory strategies more effectively. Instead of creating blanket solutions for the entire group, teachers can track student attendance for each individual to know who needs help and design personalized ways of delivering them.

2. Understand student engagement

Without the physical learning environment, students are prone to distractions or even disruptions due to connectivity, etc. These have a significant impact on their engagement and therefore learning itself. Understanding this aspect of attendance is an essential step in preventing chronic absenteeism.

Ready access to real-time attendance data can help teachers spot disengaged students and encourage participation immediately. It helps foster peer-to-peer student engagement strategies such as group projects and collaborative activities. Such visibility also enables school administrators to reach out to parents when necessary.

3. Review and improvise remote strategy

We know now that what used to work in in-person classrooms doesn’t work well in remote classrooms. Parents are dealing with “screaming, sobbing and outbursts after children as young as five are left feeling fried after being expected to stay engaged six hours a day online,” writes Bethany Mandel in the New York Post. Suffice to say that remote education can be challenging for students, teachers, and parents.

Yet, as COVID continues to spread and a vaccine still a distance away, remote education is inevitable. Therefore, for teachers to devise more effective means of delivery, attendance data will become an important measure of success. This is not only important for academic learning, but also social skills such as communication, conflict resolution, stress management and so on.

In fact, chronic absenteeism has long been a crisis. COVID-19 has exacerbated it, further marginalizing the already disadvantaged communities. An important way to address this issue and equalize educational opportunity is through data. And attendance data might just be the foundational structure teachers need today.