Blog: The Educated Reporter

Chicago Study: Preschool Absences Predict Student Learning Struggles in Later Grades

Chicago Study: Preschool Absences Predict Student Learning Struggles in Later Grades

I spoke with Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, about the Chicago study, as well as her organization’s nationwide push marking Attendance Awareness Month. You can catch the replay below.

Students who were chronically absent as preschoolers lagged in academic and social-emotional development, and were five times more likely to be chronically absent in second grade, according to a new study from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The study has implications for schools and communities beyond the Windy City, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national advocacy group.

“People tend to think of attendance as a middle and high school problem, but this study demonstrates conclusively that attendance matters as early as pre-kindergarten,” Chang said in a statement. “We keep talking about the value of early education, but it’s only valuable if children show up regularly so they get the most out of the enriched learning experience.”

Chronic absenteeism is defined by researchers as missing at least 10 percent of the academic year’s instructional days. The consortium’s study covered the 2008-2012 academic years in the nation’s third-largest school district. Four different programs serving 25,000 students annually (about 77 percent of the district’s preschool enrollment) were involved.

Among the key findings:

  • Attendance records for many of the Chicago preschoolers were spotty, with “almost half of three-year-olds and more than one third of four-year-olds chronically absent.”
  • African-American students were more likely to be chronically absent. Additionally, “logistical obstacles” such as child care and family related matters were more than twice as as likely to be the reason given for African-American student absences compared with white students. 
  • Parents were aware that school attendance was generally important but didn’t know skipping days in the younger grades mattered as much as it does for older students.

There are multiple takeaways from the new study. Here are a few that come to mind: First off, some families are clearly struggling with a host of challenges that make it difficult for their children to develop healthy attendance habits. How big a role should schools play in the logistics of getting kids into the seats, in addition to the responsibility to educate them once they show up? Is the answer providing parents with more wraparound services to fill in the gaps? Or is it about convincing families to shift their priorities by convincing them that every day counts even in the earliest years of schooling? I suspect the answer will be more complicated than just one or the other.