Still Present and Accounted For: Q&A with Hedy Chang

Without Hedy Chang’s work on chronic absenteeism, it is unlikely that the issue would be as prominent in the education policy conversation as it is today. As Executive Director of Attendance Works, she fronts the non-profit’s national efforts to advance student success in school by reducing chronic absence.

When the Annie E. Casey Foundation approached Chang in 2006, they wanted her help determining whether early absenteeism among kindergarteners and first-graders impacted achievement by the third grade. The task, it turned out, was not as simple as just weeding through local data; instead, she discovered that most schools had no records of chronic absenteeism, only total days missed.

Furthermore, in an era before electronic records, connecting the dots between early absences and later academic achievement was an enormous task. Over the next two years, she worked on the first comprehensive report exploring the causes and effects of chronic absenteeism, entitled “Present, Engaged, and Accounted For.” And what she thought would be an easy short-term research project did not stop there; Chang is now on her tenth year of research and advocacy on this issue.

In addition to heading up Attendance Works, Chang was named a “Champion of Change” by the White House in 2013, and currently serves on the steering committee for the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative (KKIS). KKIS, according to Chang, emerged from the court’s desire to leverage its power and work directly with law enforcement to prevent truancy from turning into crime.

The Chronicle (CSC) recently sat down with Chang for a conversation about what the research and policy changes look like for nationwide chronic absenteeism today:

The Chronicle of Social Change: So you were there at the very beginning of this conversation around chronic absence. What was the process of spearheading that research like?

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.
Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.

Hedy Chang: Yes, I started the research that then created the body of nation-wide data that first suggested that this was an issue, particularly in the early grades. Eventually, I realized that I had to build a national infrastructure and organization in order to be able to continue to do this work.

CSC: What is the impact of chronic absenteeism on students?

HC: Well, one Rhode Island study found that if kids were chronically absent in kindergarten, that consistently predicted lower test scores by third grade. And, if you track that into fifth grade and even into the older grades, that gap just grows. By high school, ninth grade chronic absence means lower graduation rates and lower levels of consistent post-secondary enrollment rates.

CSC: Over the course of your research, were there any main reasons for chronic absenteeism that particularly stood out?

HC: Well, some of this absenteeism is just from the impact of not being in class and therefore not being able to receive the instruction necessary. However, there are also many other factors. One example I see a lot is when a child has dental problems like cavities or decay; they’re now having the issue of headaches that might keep them out of class, but even if they are in class that pain could impact their performance. So chronic absence is important not only because you can’t teach a kid who isn’t there, but also because chronic absence should be seen as a sign that there might be an issue there that you really want to resolve early, before it has long-term detrimental effects on a kid’s ability to learn. In my experience there are three main reasons that kids are kept out of school.

First, there’s the myth that missing a few days of school is no big deal. Folks just don’t understand that those few days can add up to too much time out of class; chronic absence is when someone misses 10% of the school year, and that’s just two days per month. Furthermore, most don’t understand that absenteeism in kindergarten and first grade can be problematic in the long run. Many think you only need to pay attention to the issue of unexcused absences. However, when kids miss too much school for anything, even if those are excused days, they’re very challenged.

The second reason is kids having real barriers, which are often related to dental care needs, asthma, chronic health issues, as well as general lack of access to healthcare. There is also the transportation problem; many kids have problems even getting to school.

Third, many kids can have issues of aversion. Perhaps the teaching is awful and is turning the kids off, perhaps there are discipline issues and kids are being unfairly suspended, perhaps there is bullying going on and the kid is scared to show up.

Last, there are issues of disengagement. This is more for older kids, but if a school’s climate doesn’t feel welcoming for whatever reason, they think they would rather be elsewhere.

One of the reasons it’s so important to unpack these challenges is that your strategies have to respond to these problems or else parents won’t trust their schools.

CSC: What has California done to combat chronic absence, and are any of these practices that other states can or should replicate?

HC: One of the things that is exciting in California is that we’re really trying to create the capacity within districts and schools to be able to look at the data, analyze it and help create a district-wide approach to combating chronic absence.

So, for example, one thing we’ve been able to do is partner with the Contra Costa County Department of Education to create a peer-learning network that now has seven school districts involved. As a part of their work they compare data with one another, they learn about best practices, they start to implement work, they have been creating really innovative new practices at the school-side level. One thing that one district did was have all of the kids come in with their parents to talk not about attendance, but more about supporting their kids academic success in school. They also had all the kids dress up in caps and gowns and take pictures of themselves so they could envision what their future could be. Part of that was to help families think about their attendance goals and backup plans to avoid allowing absences to add up.

However, this work has not been fully realized yet. In California, one of the main things we potentially have going for us is the Local Control and Accountability Plan [LCAP], which has chronic absence as an accountability factor of that measurement. Each school has to report that, and every county office plays a pretty big role in providing technical assistance. That is a promise that has not been fully realized yet, because there are so many districts that haven’t even collected their chronic absence data yet in order to complete their LCAPs. However, it’s important that we have this framework to start with. It increases the chance that we’ll be able to get best practices agreed upon across the state.

CSC: Alternately, which practices have you seen other states use that have worked and should be replicated? What does federal funding look like for these types of programs?

HC: Unlike California [who only recently voted to include attendance data in their California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System information], most other states have been keeping track of attendance for years and can offer an annual assessment of whether things are getting better or worse. There are huge accountability benefits of states being able to look at the big picture and see trends across districts, especially if their chronically absent kids are highly mobile.

Another, more local practice that could be adopted and scaled up is the Success Mentor model out of New York City, where kids are paired with an adult. The best predictor of future chronic absence is past chronic absence, so the program pairs those with moderate absence levels (in the 10-20% range) with an adult or an older student who checks in with the student every single day and make sure that they know that when they miss, they’re noticed. The mentor calls home, tries to figure out what’s going on and connects them with resources. This model has been shown in New York to effectively reduce chronic absence rates among students involved in the program by about 9 days per year, and schools that were applying engagement and absence reduction tactics more comprehensively reported reducing absence rates by closer to a month. Those numbers really can change a kid’s outcome.

Anyway, that is a model that the U.S. Department of Education has supported replicating in a number of school districts across the country. Federally, one big shift that has happened recently is that chronic absence is now a required reporting metric under the Every Student Succeeds Act as a part of Title I. Schools and districts still have an incredible amount of flexibility in determining how they’ll address these issues for themselves, but now they have permission to use these federal funds!

This story is part of a series funded by The Stuart Foundation on behalf of the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative.

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Lisa Martine Jenkins
About Lisa Martine Jenkins 35 Articles
Lisa is the marketing coordinator for The Chronicle of Social Change and a recent graduate of University of California-Berkeley. Find her at or on Twitter @lisa_m_jenkins.