School attendance and persistence

Strategy overview

  • Interventions to help students attend school: Students with high levels of absenteeism have poorer academic outcomes than their peers and are at higher risk of not graduating from high school. Interventions to improve school attendance and persistence represent a wide range of tactics to ensure that students attend school with greater frequency and are able to overcome barriers to their full participation in school.

  • Processes to proactively monitor attendance and intervene: Factors driving chronic absenteeism vary widely and are often specific to an individual student’s circumstances. These can include family responsibilities, health issues, housing instability, or bullying or safety concerns, among others. Experts emphasize the importance of tracking and monitoring absences as closely as possible and rapidly investigating absenteeism through engagement with the student or parents/guardians. Early intervention is generally seen as effective in preventing absenteeism from becoming ingrained.

  • School connectedness as a foundation: Research has shown that students who feel connected to school have better attendance. A range of interventions have been shown to foster connectedness, including individualized efforts like positive greetings at the door, home visits, or cognitive behavioral therapy in schools, and school-wide interventions, like instituting a Community Schools or Trauma-Informed Schools model.

  • Addressing barriers to attendance and common causes of absences at multiple levels: There are a variety of evidence-based approaches to improving attendance and persistence that can be implemented at multiple levels. Examples include:
    • School-wide: Restorative discipline practices, Attendance “nudge” messages to caregivers, free meals like “breakfast after the bell”, free or subsidized transportation, school-based health services, and other school-based supports.

    • Classroom: Culturally relevant curriculum, student-teacher relationships, positive greetings, and more.

    • Individual: Parent-teacher home visits, case management-style approaches, and others.

Strategies to improve attendance and strengthen school persistence are supported by multiple rigorous research syntheses with positive results.

  • A 2023 statistical analysis found that schools that had higher levels of parent engagement before the pandemic experienced lower rates of chronic absenteeism post-pandemic, suggesting that the strength of family-school relationships is a crucial factor in improving attendance.

  • A 2021 randomized field experiment found that providing students awards for good attendance had no effect on improving attendance and that once removed, the awards had a significant negative effect on attendance. The study suggests awards signal that attendance is neither the social norm nor an institutionally expected behavior.

  • A 2021 regression discontinuity found that implementing a “Breakfast After the Bell” program is a scientifically supported approach to reducing chronic absenteeism.

  • A 2019 randomized controlled trial found that truancy notifications to caregivers that used an asset-based approach and easy-to-ready language had a positive effect on improving student attendance.

  • A 2017 randomized controlled trial found that repeated data-informed personalized communications to guardians encouraging them to improve their student’s attendance reduced absences is a scientifically supported approach to reducing chronic absenteeism. The findings were replicated in 2018.

  • A 2017 research synthesis found that attendance interventions that focus on addressing individualized reasons for absenteeism, such as mental health or housing insecurity, for chronically absent students were a scientifically supported approach for improving student attendance.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs are a scientifically supported approach for increasing high school completion.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs for teen mothers are a scientifically supported approach for increasing high school completion.

Before making investments in school attendance and persistence interventions, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in school attendance interventions. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in school attendance interventions. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Consistent attendance: Percentage of students who are present for more than 90 percent of their enrolled days, excluding students enrolled for fewer than 90 days.

  • 6th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 6 with passing grades in English language arts and math, attendance of 90 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 8th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 8 with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 9th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 9 with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • High school graduation: Adjusted cohort graduation rate (the percentage of first-time 9th graders who graduate with a regular diploma within four, five, and six years of entering high school, regardless of whether they transferred schools).

  • Institutions’ contributions to student outcomes: Schools’ contributions to student outcomes, including achievement, attendance, social-emotional learning, college enrollment, and earnings, using value-added models.

Given the range of interventions that may support school attendance, key design attributes vary widely by intervention type. Expert opinion suggests considering the following attributes for any attendance-related intervention:

  • Integrate interventions seamlessly into a student’s day: School-wide interventions should be built into a student’s normal school day. This both reduces stigma that may be associated with the service and minimizes effort on the part of the student. For example, one jurisdiction that provides free public transit to students created a “kid lane” at subway entrances, which allows students free entry with or without their transit pass. Similarly, experts noted that “breakfast after the bell” programs that are delivered in the classroom versus another location in a school yield higher participation rates by alleviating the need for specific action by the student.

  • Ensure interventions are voluntary and focused on trust: Participation in attendance-based interventions should generally be voluntary for students and families, particularly when they require high-touch approaches like parent-teacher home visits. Experts emphasize the importance of collaborative partnerships between school staff and caregivers in achieving the best learning and developmental outcomes for students, which tend to be more feasible when rooted in trust versus mandates.

  • Provide teacher training and support: Many attendance interventions, like parent-teacher home visits or culturally relevant instruction, require active participation and expanded duties of teachers. Teachers should be provided with the training and resources that allows them to feel confident in implementing new interventions, and adding additional support staff can help prevent teacher burnout and maintain high-quality academic instruction. Teachers should be compensated for any work outside of normal school hours.

  • Automate communication where possible and communicate through multiple channels: Selecting interventions that require little day-to-day staff time may yield gains without imposing a burden on resources. For example, automated digital messages to parents and caregivers regarding attendance is low-cost and low-effort, but has been shown to yield improved attendance. Research also found paper notices to have a longer-lasting effect when compared to text messages, likely due to the overwhelming amount of digital communication many people receive.

  • Focus on building long-term relationships: When students have long-term, continuous relationships with adults at school, including mentors, they are less likely to be chronically absent and see the greatest improvement in academic and behavioral outcomes. Interventions that include a mentoring component should screen for mentors able to commit to long-term relationships and offer them the training and support needed to be successful.

  • Reframe attendance: Implementing interventions to improve attendance and persistence often requires culture change within schools and changes in attitudes among staff. School leaders should emphasize that attendance should be seen as an indicator of challenges in a student’s life that needs to be investigated and addressed. This helps avoid a punitive reaction that may further discourage attendance and engagement by the student.

  • Monitor the broader community context: Recent events in a student’s broader community may drive spikes in absenteeism. For example, immigration enforcement actions may make undocumented students or students whose parents are undocumented afraid to engage with public institutions. School leaders and staff should be cognizant of such occurrences in order to provide culturally-sensitive support to students and families.

  • Evaluate disciplinary and truancy policies and practices: Disciplinary methods–and in particular, those that result in temporary exclusion from school, tend to exacerbate absenteeism. They are also disproportionately imposed on students of color. While distinct from discipline, truancy similarly disproportionately impacts students of color and has been shown to be ineffective in encouraging attendance. It is crucial that both truancy and disciplinary policies be evaluated to ensure they are not only in line with efforts around attendance, but that their effect on students of color is accounted for when designing interventions around attendance. This may include the use of trauma-informed practices or other school-based supports that can address the needs of students from racially marginalized communities. Proper support for teachers should be provided in the event that classroom management policies change.

  • Ensure accessibility and culturally competent design: Provide fliers, notifications, enrollment forms, and other materials in the languages most relevant to students, families and caregivers. Hire staff that have both the language skills and cultural competency that allows them to engage positively with students and parents. Accommodate varying levels of digital literacy and access by providing materials and communications digitally, on paper, by phone, or in-person.

  • Principals and superintendents: Addressing school attendance can be both time and resource intensive, so leadership is crucial in prioritizing and allocating staff and resources to address it. They also can play a pivotal role in reframing how the school views attendance and establishing it as a schoolwide priority.

  • District data teams: Existing staff with data competency can be critical in successfully monitoring attendance and rapidly identifying emerging issues. They also are vital in establishing data-sharing agreements and other mechanisms that facilitate automated notices to families regarding attendance.

  • Teachers, parent liaisons and other school staff: School staff with existing relationships and rapport with families and caregivers can act as an initial point of outreach to parents to raise awareness of absences and understand underlying factors that may be contributing to poor attendance.

  • Local elected officials: Elected officials can support attendance-focused efforts by naming school attendance as a priority across the community and serving as a centralized point of coordination across city or county departments. Some local governments organize a task force, staffed by the executive office, to coordinate agencies who may need to be involved in implementing particular solutions, such as social services, transportation, and public safety agencies.

  • Community organizations: Organizations that are deeply embedded within communities can help schools understand current context or recent events within particular communities that may be affecting student attendance, as well as implement culturally-relevant solutions to barriers students are facing.

  • Utilize varied methods for understanding drivers of absenteeism: Monitor absences daily or weekly and rapidly investigate to determine the cause by speaking to the student or their parents. Alternatively, schools can pick a single day in a given month or semester and conduct a more intensive audit of absences, followed by immediate outreach to and engagement with students and parents.

  • Employ a tiered approach when addressing absences: Interventions selected to address absences for individual students can scale in intensity depending on student need and frequency of absence. For example, after a single absence, the school may send a notification to caregivers, and a second absence may spur a phone call to parents. Developing this type of protocol can streamline actions taken by school staff who are tasked with promoting school attendance.

  • Dedicate time and cultivate buy-in among staff: Build attendance monitoring, investigation, and remediation into the responsibilities of school staff roles. Provide training to staff on the importance of attendance and the school’s approach to addressing it to generate the necessary buy-in to the school’s approach to boosting attendance.

  • Foster collaboration and formalize partnerships with other public agencies: District leaders should utilize their networks to determine if other local agencies are already providing services, like discounted transportation or mentoring programs, that could be used to address barriers to school attendance.

  • Attendance: Monitoring student attendance at the aggregate and individual level is the primary metric that indicates success of attendance interventions. Patterns in absences may be seen on certain days of week, times of year, or within certain sub-groups of students.

  • Chronic absenteeism: Students who are absent or are on track to be absent 10% or more of school days are often those in need of the most targeted support and intervention.

  • Student engagement and school connectedness: Student engagement and connectedness are foundational enablers of attendance. Drops in these indicators often serve as a warning that attendance issues may arise. They are frequently measured via student surveys.

Evidence-based examples

Aiming to increase the likelihood that students at risk of academic failure receive either a high school diploma or GED
High school graduation

Evidence varies across specific models

Supports and resources to address individual barriers to school attendance
High school graduation

Evidence varies across specific models

Volunteer mentoring program matching community members with disadvantaged or at-risk youth
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods
Check & Connect (C&C) is a school-based, student engagement and mentoring program that aims to increase attendance and reduce dropout for K-12 students.
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation
Diplomas Now is a school reform model that seeks to improve student attendance, behavior, and academic performance.
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
A range of support services to increase school engagement and academic performance
High school graduation

Evidence varies across specific models

GED bridge programs help students to both earn their GED and successfully transition into postsecondary education.
High school graduation Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Support programs for individuals to earn a high school equivalency credential 
High school graduation Post-secondary enrollment and graduation

Evidence varies across specific models

Accelerated adult learning program that leads to a full high school diploma.
High-quality employment Supportive neighborhoods
JAG is a student success program for students in grades 6-12 and those who are out-of-school or are in alternative education settings.
High school graduation Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Mentoring programs pairing adult volunteers with at-risk students to provide counseling and guidance
High school graduation

Evidence varies across specific models

An intervention for girls of middle school and high school age who demonstrate risk factors for juvenile justice system involvement.
Stable and healthy families High school graduation
Prevents youth disconnection through work readiness training, paid internships, and mentoring
High school graduation High-quality employment

Results for America would like to thank the following contributors who lent their expertise to the creation of this resource:

  • Dr. Robert Balfanz: Robert Balfanz is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he is the director of the Everyone Graduates Center. He has published widely on secondary school reform, high school dropouts, early warning systems, chronic absenteeism, school climate, and instructional interventions in high-poverty schools. He focuses on translating research findings into effective school interventions. In 2013 he was named a Champion for Change for African American Education by President Obama.
  • Carlo Castillo: Carlo Castillo works as a policy analyst in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education in Washington, DC where they use research and attendance data to guide the city’s investments in reducing chronic absenteeism among K-12 students. They earned their Master of Public Affairs degree, and Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Dr. J. Jacob Kirksey: J. Jacob Kirksey is an assistant professor at Texas Tech University and consultant at DEEP Dive Consulting Group. His research is focused on issues at the nexus of education and other areas of public policy, which include student absenteeism and truancy, special education, effects of immigration enforcement, and the workforce. 
  • Gina Martinez-Keddy: Gina Martinez-Keddy is the executive director of Parent Teacher Home Visits (PTHV). After 18 years in community organizing, she joined PTHV as executive director in 2017. She sets an organizational vision and strategy for PTHV to positively impact students, families, and educators via PTHV’s evidence-based model of relationship-building home visits.
  • Dr. Todd Rogers: Todd Rogers is professor of public policy at Harvard. He’s a behavioral scientist who develops interventions, especially focused on student attendance. Todd also co-founded EveryDay Labs, where he is co-founder, equity holder, and Chief Scientist (an unpaid position). It is an independent organization that partners with school districts to reduce student absenteeism. He co-authored Writing for Busy Readers.