Research news: Parent perspectives on school attendance

Recently at Teacher, we shared new research findings on the reasons why some young people experiencing disadvantage in Australia are leaving school before completing year 12 (Russell, 2024). One of the early warning signs detected by this study was rate of attendance in the years preceding the student’s decision to leave school.

We know the impact of poor school attendance and the important role families play in a child’s school attendance (Hancock & Earp, 2024).

How the pandemic has impacted student attendance, and parent understanding of the importance of regular attendance, is also becoming clearer through new research from the United States. Dr Anna Saavedra, Professor Morgan Polikoff and Dr Dan Silver found that parents aren’t necessarily fully aware of, or concerned about, their child’s attendance at school.

How often are students absent from school?

Sharing details of their study on the Brookings Institution website, the researchers say 30% of students in the US were chronically absent in the 2021–22 school year, which is double the pre-COVID level.

On why their research was important to conduct, Dr Saavedra, Co-Director at the Center for Applied Research in Education (CARE) at the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, tells Teacher: ‘We learned through the pandemic the great extent to which in-person learning is critical to students’ academic progress, mental health, and social skills. Doubling of the chronic absenteeism rate since pre-COVID indicates some combination of new obstacles for students and a harmful devaluation of in-person learning, both of which seem absolutely critical to understand, with the goal of reversing the trend.’

Their research involved surveying a representative sample of almost 2,500 parents and carers of K-12 students across the US about school absenteeism. The survey was conducted in the middle of the school year, between December 2023 and February 2024.

Working off a definition of chronic school absenteeism being 10% of the school year – which, out of 180 total school days in the US means missing 18 days in one school year – the researchers decided chronic absenteeism to be apparent if the child of the parent surveyed had missed more than 10 days of school in the first half of the school year.

When parents were asked about how many days of school their child had missed so far in the academic year, approximately 15% reported their child had been absent for 6 days or more in autumn 2023. ‘About a third of these caretakers reported absences of more than 10 days. These percentages are substantially lower than the rates found in hard data about chronic absenteeism (which in some states has been reported to be twice as high as what parents are reporting),’ the researchers write on Brookings.

Accounting for potential reporting bias

Importantly, the survey used in this research was a probability-based survey specifically designed by the research team to reduce potential biases, such as social desirability bias’ where parents may underreport their child’s absences out of embarrassment.

‘Probability-based survey panels use random sampling methods (typically address-based) to select participants from the population of interest, Dr Saveedra explains to Teacher. ‘This ensures that every member of the population has a known and non-zero chance of being selected, reducing the risk of sampling bias. The ultimate probability-based survey sample is a true random subset of the population, not a group of people who have volunteered to be included (as in an ‘opt-in’ sample or a convenience sample).

‘Probability-based samples take a tremendous amount of time, effort, and resources to create, maintain, and curate. Respondents are regularly compensated for their time, communicated with often, and treated respectfully by researchers with 24-hour helpdesks [and] other support services. In part because of this treatment, panel respondents often show higher rates of response and lower levels of social desirability bias, leading to what research has shown to be half as much error in resulting estimates compared to opt-in panels (Mercer & Lau, 2023).

‘While we cannot rule out the threat of social desirability bias explaining some of the difference between our reports and nationwide reports using hard data, we designed and implemented our survey to minimise such biases.’

Parent concern about their child’s absences

The research revealed that only 8% of families say it’s true or very true they are concerned about the frequency of their child’s absences. ‘Among caretakers whose children are old enough to have been in school before the pandemic, just 9% report that their child misses more school now than they did pre-pandemic, and 82% do not think their child is missing too much school,’ the team write.

Family concern does increase the more days their child has missed. While less than 5% of families whose children were absent fewer than 5 times in the school year so far report it being mostly or very true that they’re concerned about absences, 29% of families of children who were absent 6-10 times, and 47% of families of children considered chronically absent, report the same level of concern.

However, the researchers reflect that this finding that less than 50% of families being concerned about their chronically absent child shows that a majority don’t see the absenteeism as a major problem. ‘There is more to the story than simply parents’ lack of awareness of their children’s absenteeism,’ they write.

In this study, the researchers hypothesised that the availability of online learning options could be relevant to family perspectives on attendance. ‘We found a third (32%) of caretakers aren’t worried about their child missing school because everything the child needs to know is available online. Relatedly, a third of parents whose children missed six or more days of school (33%) believe it is okay for students to work from home if they want.’

Despite this, the survey findings also show that 91% of caretakers agreed or strongly agreed that in-person attendance is important even if materials are online.

In light of this, Dr Saavedra tells Teacher: ‘Schools must impress upon parents that online learning options are a supplement to, not a substitute for, in-person attendance.’

How can schools work with parents on student attendance?

Considering their findings, the researcher say it is important parents receive clear and direct reporting of their children’s absences.

‘Longitudinal comparisons (e.g., your child is missing XX more days than they used to) or other normative comparisons (e.g., your child’s attendance is lower than XX percent of their peers) might be one effective strategy. These kinds of comparisons have been shown to drive attendance behaviour in a Philadelphia experiment, for example [Rogers, T. et al., 2017].’

Dr Saavedra also tells Teacher that the low levels of concerns about absences, even among caregivers of children with high reported absences, suggest parents’ valuation of in-person school may have decreased since pre-COVID. ‘This cultural change requires acknowledgement and addressing from educators. For example, educators’ grading policies need to emphasise the need for in-person attendance.

‘Children’s mental health seems related to absences and requires high prioritisation,’ she adds. ‘We are currently investigating this relationship, as we have been tracking children’s caregiver-reported mental health … over the past 2 years and can statistically relate mental health over time to absences for the same children.

‘We are grateful for financial support for our absenteeism work from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation Pandemic Policy Research Fund at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. We also acknowledge the contributions of our UAS education research colleagues Amie Rapaport, Marshall Garland, Jake Scollan-Rowley, as well as the UAS administration team – and all our work is with many thanks to the UAS respondents’ participation in our surveys.’

References and related reading

Hancock, K., & Earp, J. (2024, February 5). Research Q&A: School attendance strategies. Teacher magazine.

Mercer, A., & Lau, A. (2023, September 7). Comparing Two Types of Online Survey Samples. Pew Research Center.

Rogers, T., Duncan, T., Wolford, T., Ternovski, J., Subramanyam, S., & Reitano, A. (2017). A randomized experiment using absenteeism information to “nudge” attendance (REL 2017– 252). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

Russell, D. (2024, April 22). Research news: Why are young people leaving school early? Teacher magazine.

Saavedra, A., Polikoff, M., & Silver, D. (2024, March 26). Parents are not fully aware of, or concerned about, their children’s school attendance. Brookings.

Reflecting on the most recent attendance data for students at your school, how many students are meeting the definition of chronic absenteeism, that is, missing 10% of school days in a school year? Have you compared this data to the levels recorded pre-COVID?

As a school leader, what strategies and policies are currently in place for supporting school attendance? Do these strategies involve longitudinal reporting to the relevant parents/carers?