- Perfect attendance certificates have traditionally been awarded to encourage students to come to school regularly. But a new study, focusing on students in grades 6-12 in 14 West Coast school districts, suggests the approach can actually backfire because students perceive perfect attendance as an extraordinary effort rather than a normal expectation, Education Week reports.
- As part of the study, some students with perfect attendance in January received a letter of congratulations and a perfect attendance certificate, some received a letter telling them they would receive a certificate if they had perfect attendance in the coming month, and the rest received nothing. The Harvard University researchers found that those who were promised a certificate attended school at roughly the same rate as those who received nothing. And those who were awarded a certificate were two percentage points less likely to have perfect attendance the following month.
- The results parallel another study of students in India published in 2016. In that study, attendance rewards had no overall benefits and negatively affected low-performing students. Though some previous studies have shown benefits from collective rewards, such as class parties, the unintended consequence of creating incentives for sick children to come to school must also be considered, the article says.
Attendance rates — and chronic absenteeism specifically — have drawn national attention in recent years, especially because many states are using attendance as a fifth indicator of school performance in their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act. Absenteeism rates impact student achievement because students are not consistently involved in the learning process. As a result, school leaders are exploring what methods work best in encouraging school attendance.
While a system of rewards seems like a logical and positive solution, these recent studies indicate that students and their parents may be interpreting the rewards as an indication that regular attendance is not a normal expectation. Rewarding students for perfect attendance may also have other unintended consequences such as encouraging sick children to come to school, an action that may multiply absences among other students and staff members.
Before school leaders can decide how to best address the attendance issue, it's important to examine the data and talk to students and their families to determine where the problems lie. Chronic absenteeism can be caused by a variety of factors that can vary from one school setting to another. In some areas, housing issues are a major factor, while in others, mental health issues, such as anxiety and stress, may contribute to students missing school. Health issues, a lack of clean clothes or transportation problems are other barriers that stand in the way. Once school leaders see what issues need to be addressed, they can better craft solutions to deal with those issues, whether it's by providing a better support structure for tracking at-risk students or by offering more wraparound services through a community school model.
Improving school climate is also an important aspect to consider. Students are more likely to want to come to school when they feel safe and that someone cares about them. When lesson plans are interesting and interactive, students are also more likely to see school attendance as worthwhile. Building stronger partnerships with families and communities can help improve attendance as well. Collaborating with outside organizations, such as Communities in Schools, is another way to reinforce the importance of attendance. A growing number of organizations geared to supporting school attendance, such as Attendance Works and Every Day Matters, also offer a range of strategies for school leaders to consider as they seek solutions that best work for their school or district.