Reducing student absences at scale by targeting parents’ misbeliefs

Abstract

Student attendance is critical to educational success, and is increasingly the focus of educators, researchers and policymakers. We report the results of a randomized experiment examining interventions targeting student absenteeism. Parents of 28,080 high-risk students in grades kindergarten to 12th grade received one of three personalized information treatments repeatedly throughout the school year or received no additional information (control). The most effective versions reduced chronic absenteeism by 10% or more, partly by correcting parents’ biased beliefs about their children’s total accumulated absences. The intervention reduced student absences comparably across grade levels, and reduced absences among untreated cohabiting students in treated households. This intervention is easy to scale and is more than one order of magnitude more cost effective than current absence-reduction best practices. Educational interventions that inform and empower parents, such as the one reported here, can complement more intensive student-focused absenteeism interventions.

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Fig. 1: Sample mailings for each treatment condition.
Fig. 2: Absences by treatment condition.
Fig. 3: Treatments corrected parents’ biased beliefs.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Pershing Square Venture Fund for Research on the Foundations of Human Behavior and IES/ICF/REL MidAtlantic number 14JTSK0003 for funding support. We thank J. Lasky-Fink, J. Ternovski and S. Subramanyam for research support. We thank T. Wolford, A. Reitano and W. Hite for district partnership and collaboration. We thank B. Balfanz, G. Basse, M. Bazerman, P. Bergman, H. Chang, L. Coffman, D. Deming, C. Fox, H. Gehlbach, A. Gelber, F. Gino, E. Glaeser, M. Gottfried, D. Green, H. Hoynes, L. John, G. King, D. Laibson, M. Laitin, S. Mullainathan, M. Norton, L. Page, L. Pierce, S. Reardon and J. Schwartzstein for feedback on earlier drafts. No funders had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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T.R. and A.F. designed the experiment, oversaw data analysis and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Todd Rogers.

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The authors declare that they had no competing financial interests while this project was being conducted. In the light of the results of this and other projects, T.R. and A.F. started an organization to help US schools implement this intervention to reduce student absenteeism. It is called In Class Today and worked with two school districts at the time of initial submission, including the school district in which the experiment reported in this manuscript was conducted—SDP.

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Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–28, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures A–D

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Rogers, T., Feller, A. Reducing student absences at scale by targeting parents’ misbeliefs. Nat Hum Behav 2, 335–342 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0328-1

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