This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It is a problem as old as school itself — how do you keep kids from missing time in the classroom?
Research out of Philadelphia suggests that the best medicine for absenteeism might be a postcard sent home with a dose of cold, hard truth.
Sending Philadelphia public school families a single postcard emphasizing the importance of attendance reduced absenteeism by 2.4 percent, according to a study released this month by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.
Further research — still in draft form — suggests an even more effective remedy: sending families postcards that tell them how often their kids have missed school. In Philadelphia, students from families who received these blunt missives missed one less day of school than their classmates in a control group.
Taken together, the studies indicate that snail-mail may be a cheap and effective way to chip away at chronic absenteeism, a problem that plagues many large, urban school districts.
The theory for this simple intervention comes from the world of behavioral science. And it may be familiar to those who have received an energy bill with data comparing the recipient’s energy usage to that of his or her neighbors. The purpose of that information is to reduce future consumption by confronting people with their own waste.
Todd Rogers, a public policy professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and officials at the School District of Philadelphia decided they would use this thinking to attack the problem of absenteeism.
After all, students can’t learn if they don’t show up. And absence rates are a reliable predictor of academic performance and graduation rates.
Rogers’ experiment divided families into four groups. The first received no postcards. The second received postcards simply extolling the virtues of attendance. The third group received postcards showing how many days their children had missed school. The fourth group received postcards showing how many days their children had missed school and comparing that total to the number of days a "typical" student would have missed.
Students in the control group missed an average of 17 days. Students whose families received a basic reminder card missed an average of 16.4 days. Students in the final two groups — whose parents were told how much time they had missed — were absent for 16 days of class.
Among students in the final two groups, chronic absenteeism — a term that applies to students who miss 18 days of school or more — dropped roughly 10 percent.