How We're Learning to Improve This School Year (Part V)

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Note: Here’s part five in our Learning to Improve series which is the primary focus of the School Performance Institute (SPI) blog this year. In it, we spotlight issues related to building the capacity to do improvement science in schools while working on an important problem of practice.

What is good attendance?

If you asked your colleagues, the answers you get may surprise you.

It’s something I’d encourage you to do- run an experiment at your school or district- and see what happens. A few months ago, I did just that. As I made my rounds at the four schools that make up the United Schools Network (USN), I went up to my colleagues and asked them how they defined good attendance. I asked them questions like, what is a good attendance rate for a student? How about a school? At what point should you intervene when a student has attendance challenges?

 
 
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Attendance Perceptions

There was enough variability in their answers that I decided to put together a simple survey to gather these perceptions more formally. The survey consisted of four items:

  • A school has strong student attendance rates if their Average Daily Attendance is greater than or equal to ____%.

  • USN schools should set a goal to have an Average Daily Attendance rate greater than or equal to ____%.

  • A student has strong attendance if their attendance rate is greater than or equal to ____%.

  • Intervention is needed if a student has an attendance rate that is less than or equal to ____%.

Seventy-three USN staff members completed the survey. Here’s what we found.

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The bottom line was that when asked about attendance, there was significant variation in our staff’s answers. For example, someone in our network defined strong student attendance as 85%, someone defined it as 99%, and the mean answer was just under 95%. This is really important information about a previously invisible problem.

But, why were asking these questions in the first place?

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High School Readiness

Last spring, we discovered that more of our 8th graders were off-track for success in high school than we previously realized. This discovery came on the heels of reading research on the issue coming out of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. In response, we’ve assembled a team working to improve this problem using a methodology called improvement science. Part of our research into high school readiness frameworks led us to the importance of strong attendance rates.  

Of course, as educators we already knew the importance of coming to school every day. Yet, this learning caused us to pause and rethink how we talk about and define strong attendance. We know a significant number of our students don’t have attendance rates predictive of high school readiness. Now, we also know that our network doesn’t have a shared working definition of strong attendance. Our theory is that at least a part of the root cause of our student attendance issues may be the lack of a shared framework that defines strong attendance for staff, students, and families.


Invisible Problems

Improvement science is really good at revealing previously invisible problems. Variability in staff definitions of good attendance is a good example of one such problem. We didn’t know this was an issue just a few months ago. However, now that we know, steps have been taken to create a countermeasure. The USN Attendance Framework was developed by our improvement science team with feedback from other staff as well as from students and families for this purpose.


Using the Framework

We’re sharing the framework, so others can use it and improve on it. Here’s a few things to know about the tool:

  • This is version 4. We will continue to make it better as we get feedback from external and internal users.

  • Days absent, and not attendance rate, is the most prominent part of the framework. This move was made intentionally because people have higher expectations when you frame attendance in terms of days absent as opposed to a rate (probably because people associate rates with grade scales).

  • Most people’s definition of strong attendance is too low. A 95% attendance rate, which is a typical definition of strong attendance, means that a student has missed approximately nine school days. Strong attendance is better defined as 97% or higher.

  • There are helpful tips about using the framework outlined on the back of the tool. These can be used to help launch your own attendance improvement work.


More on How We’re Learning to Improve

With funding support from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, School Performance Institute is partnering with USN to improve its high school readiness rates. SPI serves as both the improvement advisor and project manager of this work. Follow our progress this year as we share what we learn during our improvement journey.

We’re also opening our doors to learn from others and share what we’ve learned at our fifth Study the Network workshop of the year at United Preparatory Academy on February 21st.

John A. Dues is Director of School Performance Institute and Chief Learning Officer for United Schools Network in Columbus, Ohio. The School Performance Institute is the learning and improvement arm of United Schools Network. Send feedback to jdues@unitedschoolsnetwork.org.

 
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