In part 3 of a 4-part interview, Harvard GSE researcher Heather Hill tells us what the research shows about ways to improve student attendance.

– Welcome to another PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena the video-powered professional learning platform for teachers. Today, we’re talking with Heather Hill. She is a researcher and a professor at Harvard graduate school of education. And as someone who thinks deeply about teacher quality and how to help teachers improve. But today we’re going to be talking about something that it’s like in the strange but true category. And it’s about students. Heather, thanks so much for joining us. Yeah. Thanks Adam. So we have been talking together about, you know in a science classroom I call them the discrepant events, right? Like it’s the thing you expected to happen but actually it was something else. So as we look ahead to this school year having kids in school of course is going to be huge. So what are some ways that we can help students be less absent? Because I feel like, you know, maybe the standard way of doing it is hire another truancy officer to go knock on doors. But I think you have another option that might work instead.

– Yeah, well, this comes out of some work that I’ve been doing for my Ed Week column. And I sort of read around in the literature and often I find things that are very surprising to me. And so this is one that I was kind of excited by because it’s also a very low cost intervention for many school districts. So first I’ll just start by saying I totally agree with your initial premise which is that we need every student every day. Like we saw increased absence rates last year, due to the pandemic due to homeschooling doing due to, you know many other different factors and we need kids back and we need them on their game. And so getting kids in the door is one of the sort of challenges that I think a lot of districts are facing but also one that is achievable. So one of the, some of the research that I was finding was that rather than going, the more punitive route what schools should do to get kids back in the classroom is to actually take an informational approach. And this comes about simply by sending postcards home to parents with information about how often your student is absent. And that can be just, you know, your kid was absent 10 days in the last six months, or it can be relative. Like your kid is absent, was absent 10 days. The average kid was absent five days. They both seem to work pretty well.

– All right, now this almost feels like you’re telling us to send a postcard with a statement of the obvious. And so maybe it makes me want to ask the question, like isn’t it how obvious that my student is in school or out of school, like, shouldn’t, we like, do people assume that parents know what’s happening with the kids?

– Okay. So the first the research shows parents are actually really bad at estimating this particular number. And I can tell you a personal, which is like we’re pretty conscientious parents. My husband actually teaches at the school where my kids go to school. So he’s, part-time, he’s there every day. So we’re like, yeah, the kids are just always there. So we get at the end of the year and like, you know just on the report card and absence statement and I opened this up and the number is 17 and there’s only like 180 days in the school year. I’m like 17, like where was my child? And, you know, then I started to think about it. Well, they were gone one day for this and one day for that. And we took a long weekend to go see the grandparents. It all adds up and I was not tracking. I think a lot of other parents don’t track either. Okay.

– So the, the anecdotal case for sending that informational postcard could help. So, you know, what else should we put in on the postcard? Or maybe we send a, you know, a small letter you know, I guess, what do we put around that Number?

– Yeah, so there’s some guidance there too, actually from these studies. So you’re going to want to send home postcards with really simple language on it so that parents can understand, you know, the sort of the gist of what you’re saying. It shouldn’t be formal or legalees, which sometimes ends up on these kinds of letters home. You want to avoid punitive language. So this should not be, you know, your responsibility as a guardian and blah, blah, blah, and court and blah blah, blah. In fact, you actually want to emphasize parental efficacy in helping their kids get to school and say, if you go that extra mile to make sure your kid gets there on that day, that’s a net gain for your kid because every day absent incrementally impacts that that child in a negative way. So you want to go, maybe you rephrase that to be more positive. Like every day you can get your kid to school. That’s one more day of learning that, that your child gets under your belt. So stay positive as the, is one of the messages here and try to educate the parents about, you know why absences are not great for kids.

– It is interesting though, right? Because, you know, at the beginning I mentioned that kind of typical starting point which is maybe it’s not the truancy officer but it’s someone right, like calling to say, you didn’t you didn’t, you didn’t, which is a very stick approach. And I think you’re saying the literature tells us use that carrot to encourage them to, to to ensure their kids are in school more often to get more of the benefits of school.

– Yeah. And it’s also true. Yeah. It’s also true when you look at chronic absenteeism. So there’s like absences and then there’s chronic absenteeism and the same lessons you see in that literature, the truancy, the, you know negative deficit approaches don’t work. What works is taking a sort of strengths-based approach with families and saying like, how, what do we have in place that can get this kid to school more often? What is going to be interesting to the kid in school? Or what can we do as a community to make this a more appealing setting for this child?

– And maybe if you’re a principal, you can go out shopping for some really nice looking postcards. [Laughter] Well, Heather, we are going to take a break if you’re just joining us and finding this video somewhere out there shared on the internet, head to PLtogether.org for the rest of the videos in this series as well as other conversations, Heather thanks so much for being part of PLtogether.

– Yeah. Thanks, Adam. This is fun.

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