New research shows how teachers are key to boosting student attendance

Some districts have tried text messages to parents. Detroit has ramped up home visits. Newark has hired back a small army of dedicated staff. Many schools offer certificates of recognition.

They’re all trying to improve attendance, understanding that the more school students miss, they more likely they are to fall off track. Increasingly, schools are being judged by those attendance numbers, too.

New research finds that some of a school’s best allies in combatting absences might be some of its teachers.

Certain teachers, it found, are much better than others at getting middle and high schoolers to come to class. Having one of those teachers meant most students attend class one or two more times each semester than they otherwise would have, and students who were frequently absent came seven to nine more days. The benefits of having one of those teachers last for years afterward, boosting high school graduation rates — especially for students who start out with the worst attendance records and test scores.

“What this data shows is the power of teachers,” said Hedy Chang of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing chronic absenteeism. “When you have engaging teachers, it motivates kids to show up to school.”

The paper, by Brown University’s Susanna Loeb and Jing Liu, is the latest effort by researchers to understand what makes a good teacher without relying solely on test scores, usually the most readily available metric.

Loeb and Liu examined attendance data from tens of thousands of middle and high school students across several years in one (anonymous) city in California. They had access to granular information about each class a student was scheduled to attend, allowing them to link a given teacher to students’ presence. That matters because whether a student is absent isn’t always a yes or no question, since students often skip single classes.

Individual teachers, the researchers found, can have very different effects on attendance — the same way they can have different effects on test scores — and it’s possible to measure their “value added” in a similar way, controlling for factors like prior attendance and poverty.

“There are multiple dimensions of good teacher quality,” said Loeb. “One of them we’ve been focusing on a lot is how to improve student test performance — and that is important — but there are other dimensions of teachers that are important, and one of them is this ability to engage students.”

One interesting aspect of these findings is that teachers who are skilled in one area often aren’t standouts in the other. If a teacher was especially effective at raising test scores, they were more likely to be especially good at raising attendance too, but only slightly.

Those teachers who have that attendance-boosting skill, though, were able to affect students’ long-term trajectories. Students, particularly those who came in with low attendance or test scores, were more likely to graduate high school if they had a single teacher in grades 7 through 11 who was particularly good at raising attendance. The increase was 0.7 percentage points — a small but notable effect for a teacher a student may have had long before graduation.

That doesn’t surprise Chang. “There is something about the habit of attendance that is about long-term outcomes, not just short-term gains,” she said. “When you develop a habit of attendance, you realize, if I keep trying … I can start to do better.”

The study looks at just one district, but the results are right in line with research in other places on how teachers affect student attendance, as well as students’ behavior, social-emotional skills, and their enjoyment of class — and even outcomes years later like college completion and adult earnings.

What should this mean for schools trying to increase their own attendance figures? The study doesn’t tell us what, exactly, those attendance-boosting teachers are doing that’s working. Chang hopes it will push schools to take a closer look at teachers who are doing well and offer support to those who are struggling.

“Teachers have to be the first line of prevention and early intervention,” she said, while offering a note of caution. “We then can’t turn around and say, well, I’ll blame teachers because kids don’t show up.”