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Attendance Matters: Q&A with Dr. Todd Rogers

Dr. Todd Rogers is a behavioral scientist who leads The Student Social Support Research and Development Lab (S3 R&D Lab) at Harvard University. S3 R&D Lab develops and scales up interventions that mobilize and empower students’ social support systems to improve achievement.

Recently, S3 R&D Lab led the Attendance Matters Project, a study aimed at reducing student absenteeism among kindergarten through fifth grade (K-5) learners. The study was supported in part by a grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation’s Education program, as part of its family engagement portfolio, which supports families and early childhood programs working together toward children’s student achievements.

Your research aims to improve student achievement by using data and behavioral science to develop high-impact interventions that mobilize and empower students’ social support systems. Could you tell us more?

S3 R&D Lab develops and scales up interventions by leveraging four recent developments:

  • First, we employ new behavioral insights. Behavioral economics and psychology have uncovered powerful levers of behavior change that are only recently being applied to social problems.
  • Second, we use improved data and communications.With comprehensive data systems, new digital learning platforms, and increasingly scalable communications, we can now send low-cost, rapid, targeted, and tailored communications to students and parents.
  • Third, our interventions involve fast-cycle, low-cost randomized controlled experiments.Sometimes called A-B testing, these rapid experiments allow for fast and cost-effective learning and innovation so we are constantly updating our interventions to reflect what works and what does not.
  • Lastly, the lab leverages mounting evidence about the influence of friends and family on student achievement. Interventions aimed at students’ friends and family can be especially cost-effective at increasing student achievement (see this overview).

What does this mean in practice?

We apply the above strategies to three areas of work. First, we develop interventions that automatically connect families with what’s going on in the classroom without additional teacher effort. Second, we develop interventions that connect non-guardian, caring adults with the students’ education. And third, we develop interventions that recalibrate some of the false beliefs parents hold that affect which behaviors they invest in.

One of the Foundation Education program’s focus areas is family engagement, supporting reciprocal relationships in which families and early childhood programs work together to support children’s student achievements. What were some of the key findings in Attendance Matters that may be of use to the education family engagement field?

The Attendance Matters Project invites parents to engage in their child’s education in a way that is concrete and achievable: help get your kid to school more regularly. In a prior study, our lab found that sending parents postcards with messages that target inaccurate beliefs about absenteeism can reduce chronic absenteeism by more than 10 percent across all grade levels, at a fraction of the cost of other types of interventions (e.g., mentors and social workers).

The Attendance Matters Project replicates and extends on this work by reaching parents of students in grades K-5 by informing parents about how many days of school their child has missed to date, while also communicating how critically important daily attendance is for kindergarten and elementary school students. Many parents of young learners don’t appreciate the critical academic role of these school years.

The intervention, in which participants received up to six mailings during the school year, reduced chronic absenteeism by 15 percent in participating schools by correcting parents’ miscalibrated beliefs around attendance.

Notably, increasing the number of days students attend school can be revenue-generating for many school districts. A light-touch intervention that increases the number of days students attend school has the potential to generate substantial revenue for districts that receive state aid on a per-student, per-day basis.

Many districts have asked for help implementing versions of this chronic-absenteeism reducing intervention in their districts. As a result, we have set up an organization to help districts implement this intervention called In Class Today.

What were some of the benefits of contacting parents through mailed printed materials instead of using email or text messages?

There are a number of reasons why we chose to deliver our intervention via postal mail, as opposed to email or text messages. In a survey we conducted in one school district, 92 percent of parents confirmed the mailing address we had on file for them. Further, 89 percent of respondents reported being very likely to open mail sent to them from the school district. Lastly, the majority of people who received our absence interventions by mail reported showing it to others in their homes. These are indications that mail has a shelf life: it sticks around, on the kitchen table or on a refrigerator, and can become a social object about which people talk. This can be very useful in multi-person households where we are interested in engaging families for behaviors like absenteeism, which are hard to predict.

That is also why we make the cards engaging. For the Attendance Matters project, we included comic figures to make the card age-appropriate and friendly for the homes of elementary school students. The card was delivered in the language spoken at home when feasible, and expressed attendance in figures and concise descriptions that are suitable for low-numeracy families, and families of all literacy levels. This ensures that our mail-based interventions receive all the attention that they possibly can, in the context of a family’s very busy day.

Interventions delivered via text message have the potential to be potent when they target an immediate behavior, such as letting parents know that their child has missed a homework assignment. But, because we cannot predict when or why a student might be absent, and because text messages tend to be forgotten after they are read, text messages are unlikely to reduce absences. A well-implemented randomized experiment found that sending attendance-related text messages to parents had no affect on student attendance.

This study finds that the postcard mailings intervention had a larger effect on dual language learners (students who live in households where more than one language is spoken), and on students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Why do you think that is and how could this inform early childhood education discussions?

We don’t really know why.  One speculation relates to the “information overload” that some households report receiving from schools. English-speaking households tend to receive a lot of general (as opposed to personalized) communications from schools in their native language––some important, some less important. Dual language households, on the other hand, tend to get less information from their schools and districts in their native language.

In the Attendance Matters study, Spanish speaking households received communications in their native language. So the results could mean that our communications may have received more attention because of the relative novelty of Spanish mail pieces from the district. Again, this is speculation, but if this mechanism is right, it would suggest that communicating in the language spoken at home may be particularly important––and potent––for getting the attention of non-native English speaking families. As mentioned above, we also made a point to communicate in a manner that families of all numeracy and literacy levels could easily understand, so it is possible that these mailers stood out as being clear and actionable for these households.