Chronic Absenteeism: The First-Order Challenge Facing Our Nation’s Schools

Principal Manko and students are all smiles! (Photo courtesy Joseph Manko)

Principal Manko and students are all smiles! (Photo courtesy Joseph Manko)

Principals like me in schools around the country face a daunting challenge. While the national conversation focuses on test scores, school performance, and academic growth, one key question that has been absent is — how do we move kids academically, when they don’t show up to school?

Chronic absenteeism – missing over twenty or more days of school in a typical 180-day year – is rampant across the country and particularly so in high poverty schools where obstacles like inadequate housing, transportation, unforgiving work schedules, and improper health care make regular attendance difficult. In my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, some schools have chronic rates of close to 30%. That means that one third of the students are missing over 10% of the school year – begging the question of how meaningful academic growth is even possible.

This week the White House and U.S. Department of Education have been shining a light on both the scale of the problem and potential solutions through My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentor initiative and a national conference on Every Student, Every Day. (Learn more about these and related efforts by following #EveryStudentEveryDay on social media.) 

So how can schools combat the issue of chronic absenteeism? Solutions will of course differ community to community, but in my experience, the answer lies in diligent, consistent, and sometime tedious work, including:

  • Making School a Desirable Place To Be – You can’t underestimate the power of making school a positive place. Schools that have strong, engaging teachers; that are connected to the community; and that offer a litany of before, after and during school activities often have higher attendance rates.
  • Creating a Unified Front – Attendance is a team sport. It can’t just be delegated the attendance monitor. As a principal, I need to know the daily attendance and to collaborate with teachers who are the first line of connection, to communicate with families.
  • Tending the Big Data Clean-Up – Improving attendance depends on having good tracking systems and reviewing them at multiple points throughout the day. Often kids marked as absent are really in attendance – they came late and the teacher forgot to change it. Stemming chronic absenteeism requires accurate data every day and while cleaning up and checking data isn’t fun, it’s the only way to know what is really going on.
  • Doing Old Fashion Home Visits – Tracking data often means tracking down kids who are missing over the span of several days. When many phone numbers don’t work, old fashion home visits often provide the best strategy for contacting kids and families and building relationships to solve the problem.
  • Determining Root Causes – There is a story behind every issue of chronic absenteeism – serious health issues, a broken car, a foreclosed home. While schools cannot solve these problems alone, there are often agencies or support organizations that can help to mitigate them. Each situation requires lots of empathy, a rolodex of resources, and sense of the possible to improve difficult situations.
  • Creating a Community Schools Approach – Schools that can provide some kind of wrap-around services for students and families or which partner with community organizations are simply in a better position to address the health, housing, and transportation that challenge our families.

Chronic absenteeism is the symptom of larger, deeper problems that can often only be addressed by addressing the larger, non-academic needs surrounding our students and their families. The fact of the matter is that if we want our schools to move students academically, we all have to commit to the hard, first-order work of getting them in the door.

Joseph Manko is the Principal of Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, and a Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. It is difficult to maintain a community school when the children are bussed from outside of the community, thus making it even harder for them to physically get to school, for example, if they miss the bus due to oversleeping. I understand the need for equity of schools, but this makes educating the underprivileged even more difficult and the attitude of”It’s not my school/community/where I live.”, even more prevalent.

    • This is definitely a challenge. Since we are a neighborhood school where all the children live within a mile radius of the school it is much more manageable to support a community based approach. We should do some idea sourcing to see if there are schools who are having success reducing chronic rates in an environment where kids are being bussed. Thanks for your response!

  2. I have been a classroom teacher for 32 years. Absent students is a reality with which all teachers deal, but chronic absenteeism needs to be addressed by guidance counselors, administrators, or school resource officers. Sadly, in my school, the Administration elected to follow a path which permitted students basically to “run the show.” Essentially, students were permitted to be wherever they wanted to be, in or out of classrooms, and nothing was ever done to correct the situation. Are there any suggestions out there that can be followed to restore civility and reset the tone of the school to that of one that chimes academia? Thank you.

    • I am sorry this situation occurred in your school. It seems like in issue of either unclear expectations or expectations that are not being consistently reinforced. Ultimately, I think this comes back to leadership and ensuring all adults in the building are on the same page. While I think many of these issues, including chronic absenteeism are areas where administrators and support staff can take the lead, overall it needs to be a group effort including classroom teachers in order to meet with success.

  3. My concern here is that there appears to be zero concern at the local, state, and federal levels that a significant portion of chronic absences are caused by chronic illnesses – and attendance and truancy policies don’t discern the difference.

    In other words, I think there are really two problems, one that should focus on young people who need support to go to school, and another who first need medical and mental health diagnoses, treatment and similar support to go to or to return to school.

    • I think this is an astute comment and there need to be systems put in place to address chronic health issues. In my district, students can apply for home and hospital if their chronic illness prevents them from consistently making it to school. School systems need to put procedures in place to help those students who have chronic health impairments.

  4. At my children’s high school the teachers have a much worse attendance rate than the children. They need to start by looking at themselves and appropriately role modeling behavior for their students before expecting change to happen.

    • If teachers are absent, there is a problem at the school that they are avoiding. Teachers are never absent at good schools. I have worked in both good and bad. I know when teachers don’t show up.

    • I am in agreement with R U Serious. We have a very good teacher attendance rate, but we also pay great attention to teacher mental health, support, and collaboration. Often schools where teachers are empowered, supported, and have a mission-focused approach, staff attendance rates tend to be much higher.

  5. Dear Secretary King,

    Congratulations on your new post. I know the passion and intelligence that you brought to your work in New York will continue in Washington.

    Having read accounts about your life, and seeing you on television and internet, I know how much your teachers meant to you. I loved my students and their families, and loved my 42 year teaching career,
    thirty-six years as a kindergarten teacher, and 12 years as a graduate school college professor of education.

    I know how deeply you, and The President care about America’s school children. I voted and contributed to both of President Obama’s campaigns and I think he is America’s greatest President since FDR.

    But as a kindergarten teacher, I was saddened by the 800 hundred page New York State Kindergarten Math Curriculum a few short years ago. There was much good in it, but it was quite complicated, much of difficult to teach young children. This and other mandated kindergarten curriculum led to the elimination many things that made kindergarten a joy in order to make way for explicit, test driven, instruction.

    I was quite confident as a teacher, and never cared if my evaluations were tied to testing, but my kindergarten students’ school experience was something I deeply cared about

    Perhaps as an unintended consequence, some school administrators’ first response to the new testing was to push more and more formal curriculum down into kindergarten. The pressure to teach this curriculum resulted in the removal of materials beloved by children: the water table, sand play table, painting easel, egg incubators, drama corner materials, workbenches, and art materials.

    Many of my students came to school still four years old for a full day of kindergarten. This more formal, academic program is not the program we promised uneasy parents, when we sold full day kindergarten to them. Many parents feared the implementation of exactly this type of highly structured, academic program, and opposed full day kindergarten for that very reason.

    This type of highly formal academic program does not utilize much of what we know about child development, and how young children learn.

    I would like nothing better than to have the opportunity to discuss early childhood education with you one day. I know how committed to our young people you are, especially to those children most in need.

    Best of luck in your endeavors on behalf of America’s Children.

    Dr. Michael Rutter

    • Dr. Rutter

      In regard to your concerns on the math curriculum being too complicated for the kindergarten class, the system is working exactly as intended. Don’t you suspect that the product being supplied by the Dept of Education is meant to confuse, stupefy, and keep the children in the dark? Dept of Education promised big business workers, not thinkers. If you brush off my claim as mere tinfoil stuff, I urge you to read the School-To-Work Opportunities Act. Or what famed teacher Joe Esposito had to say on his time spent on Gov Frank Keating’s Executive Council Board on the STW (school to work) program. Read John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education”. This is a compendium of facts, not conjecture and conspiracy theories. Read the US Dept of Education’s own plans for American students, if you do not wish to take my word for it. Read everything the govt’s got to say on work-based learning. Read what goals they have for American students and what they have planned for the future. It is solely based on UN guidelines (whatever those may be, and an entirely different topic in itself!) and zero to do with educating the young.

  6. This perspective on addressing absenteeism, takes a deeper look into the home and family dynamics, school environment[climate and culture], and considers learning needs. A ‘whole child’ approach considers the environmental influences of family, school and community, as well as peer pressure, etc…
    A critical factor to target solutions to absenteeism is found inside the home-the family.
    Chronic absenteeism does not occur in a vacuum, and the efforts to promote regular school attendance MUST not negate or dismiss environmental, familial, personal or unmet learning needs as potential contributors. It is bigger than the confines of the school buildings, and we have to care enough to step outside of our comfort zones to gain a closer look.
    Students can no longer be reduced to simply names on a roster; they need to belong, and teachers have to establish relationships with youngsters and their families from the start. We must be more proactive and not allow one student’s absences become chronic, and teachers must help facilitate partnerships with students and their family, mindful that they reside in a community-the school community.

    • My son started to experience chronic absenteeism his first year of Middle School (6th grade)this year. He struggled to relate to the environment. He’s a kind person, and the bullying was too much for him.
      Indiscriminate bullying, just some random child/ren pushing, swearing at, or name calling was too much. The year started with bus rides, and the swearing and pushing was insane. I relate what he’s told me, not what I witnessed. We talk over these things.
      I home school now, and worry about his social life. He’s slowly rebuilding connections to former classmates.
      I don’t think the system is supportive at all. I think it’s punitive in mindset and actions. All they care about is attendance, and we’ll be targeted with truancy soon. Then we have to fear the courts and family services. My wife and I have been married 34 years, and we work hard to raise our son. Our daughter made it, and relates how she found a few close friends and a couple of very good teachers in High School to make it through. Our son didn’t get the chance to develop a close network of mature friends.
      I think the school was Ok, but had no means to be supportive. They didn’t reach out to us with for feedback, and when I withdrew our son, they had nothing to offer. I asked about home school information at the office. Nothing! The internet was my resource tool.
      I don’t want parents to be targets of why their kids don’t attend. The schools and some children make the environment intolerable for some children. A few make the situation for some other few untenable.

    • I agree that each student is a whole human, and as a former social worker, I approach teaching with this philosophy in mind. Having said that, I fear that we are placing responsibility for every component of the teaching and learning system on the one person in the equation who is most overtasked: the teacher. These types of demands certainly lead to teacher attrition, teacher absenteeism, teacher apathy, and overall poor school climate. No wonder teachers and students dont come to school.

    • This is a fantastic posting and I feel like it really captures both the challenges and opportunities. Chronic absence is really a place where several city agencies- the health department, housing, social services, and transportation, can all unify to address a massive problem. Unfortunately, there are few examples across the country where these various entities are working together to address this issue.

  7. I am a national board certified teacher in Montana.
    I have noticed the absenteeism also—-

    Under determining the root causes, I would like to know the role that
    cell phone addiction, video game addiction play in this area. I am sure it is a factor. I strongly suggest that we find out.

    Also, we as educators need a unified front on digital addiction, severe emotional dependence, and emotional dependence —-it is really having a negative affect (attendance included). Please let me know where I can find more data on this problem.

    • I would suggest learning about the new reasons for technology use. Students use Skype after school to communicate. They’re involved in many video games to be sure. Their lives are the new market, and target market, so we parents are inundated with these apps.
      The child sees a litany of app advertisements too, so there’s that ad culture we are dealing with at home. We also work hard as parents to balance the use, we work very hard! However, our child has become very experienced very fast. He’s already a bit compulsive, and has a need to thoroughly understand the Apps. His desire is a need to perform well. I hope you see where that goes.
      Like I noted, we work very hard to balance his activity. The redeeming part is Skype. That use is the new phone, or text of recent past generations. Skype is direct face and talk communication, in groups. They’ll laugh and discuss a strategy, talk over a school issue, make a plan to do something on the weekend, and play video games. Think Minecraft.
      My intent is to smooth out the edges of disdain for technology and jump onto the addiction bandwagon. I think pushing punishment mentality has made a divisive environment, and expanded bias toward the use that is part of these kids lives. To add a stigma of the word addiction is using the punitive mindset. I ask for caution and patience. Reel in the bias and consider the person. Are they kind, empathetic, appear to show leadership, intelligent, etc…?

  8. What you can do with schools/communities where parents take their students out of school for up to a month because they travel overseas due to different purposes. It is very common around schools that serve families of many nationalities. Most students at their return fall into a gap.

    • There was a time when schools supported students of seasonal migrant workers, or students who were culturally obligated to miss school for extended periods. That support has ceased to exist as school systems have become businesses instead of learning communities. I’m happy that so many schools are switching gears.

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