It’s time to talk about prekindergarten absenteeism


Photo by Juan Silva/Getty Images

As the federal government invests more money in prekindergarten and focuses more energy on battling absenteeism, it’s important that policymakers and school administrators consider the link between the two.

Interest in prekindergarten has been growing steadily on both sides of the aisle, and the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act includes $250 million in grants for early education. State funding for prekindergarten has swelled from $5.3 billion to $7.0 billion in the past four years, with 32 states increasing their funding.

Simultaneously, the federal government has shown unprecedented interest in curbing chronic absenteeism. This fall, the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice announced a new initiative to address chronic absenteeism, calling absenteeism an equity issue because of its disproportionate prevalence among low-income students and students of color. As part of this initiative, the Department of Education released a new website in June highlighting new data on chronic absenteeism. This is the first time such data has been collected at the federal level.

These data focus only on students in K–12, largely mirroring school districts’ approaches to attendance and absenteeism. But our research suggests that attendance matters even before kindergarten, and as interest in and funding for prekindergarten grows, policymakers, education officials, and school districts should consider taking a systematic approach to prekindergarten absenteeism.

The Urban Institute has partnered with DC Public Schools for the past four years to study absenteeism in prekindergarten. The resulting studies, two of which were released today, provide strong evidence that a focus on prekindergarten attendance can have lasting effects.

Prekindergarten is usually a parent’s first exposure to the school system. Our research shows that parental perspectives on the value of prekindergarten are critical to attendance, particularly in the early grades. Because prekindergarten is usually the first time parents come into contact with teachers and school administrators, and because prekindergarten parents have the highest levels of engagement, it offers a crucial opportunity for the school to set the tone and emphasize the importance of attendance. Prekindergarten is also when families start to form their school routines. If consistent attendance becomes a habit early, it is more likely to continue.

Chronic absenteeism in prekindergarten predicts chronic absenteeism and lower academic achievement in elementary school. The new report from Lisa Dubay and Nikhil Holla demonstrates this effect in DC, and earlier research has shown similar patterns in Chicago and Baltimore. In DC, children who were chronically absent in prekindergarten—that is, they missed more than 10 percent but less than 20 percent of enrolled days—were 9.1 times more likely than their peers with satisfactory attendance to be chronically or severely chronically absent in kindergarten, 5.9 times more likely in first grade, and 4.4 times more likely in second grade.

Children who have attendance problems in prekindergarten also enter school less ready because they miss important social and academic skills taught in prekindergarten. And because children from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent, narrowing attendance gaps in early education might help close the later achievement gap.

Increasing prekindergarten attendance doesn’t require a brand-new approach. Many of the strategies that work for curbing prekindergarten absenteeism are similar to the strategies that work for increasing attendance at other grade levels. In the second Urban report out today, Michael Katz, Martha Johnson, and Gina Adams describe what parents and staff said worked at four DCPS schools with better-than-expected attendance.

While strategies will—and should—differ depending on place and population, what worked for the DC schools was creating a positive, inclusive school community that prioritized family engagement; establishing standardized and consistent attendance policies and practice; communicating with families proactively, especially early in the school year; and partnering with community organizations to support families and provide incentives for attendance. These strategies are especially important in prekindergarten when families are first forming a relationship with their child’s school.

The expansion of prekindergarten holds great promise for our youngest students, but school districts and the federal, state, and local governments that fund them need to take steps to ensure absenteeism doesn’t undermine that promise.