Would “nudge” letters improve attendance in your school?


Would “nudge” letters improve attendance in your school?

Is your kid absent more than classmates? School ‘nudge’ letters tell parents just how much. By Neal Morton

 In Tacoma, Washington and 16 other cities across the nation, school districts are boosting student attendance by sending home what they call “nudge” letters when students miss too many days of school. The nudge letters include a tally of a student’s absences — a number that research shows parents usually underestimate. Under that, the letters also provide the absence average for the school and for the child’s grade level across the district.

The idea was dreamed up by Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist and former Democratic pollster, and studies done in Chicago, San Mateo, Calif., and Philadelphia have shown the letters can reduce chronic absenteeism rates by 11-15 percent.

After just one round of letters at Lister Elementary in Tacoma, Washington, attendance improved for 62 percent of the students who received them. And the gains persisted after a second round, persuading district leaders to expand the effort to every campus this school year. A number of other area districts are considering using nudge letters, too, including Seattle Public Schools.

In Tacoma this school year, the letters already are helping students like 10-year-old Brooke Bouton, whose family received one of the 5,000 nudge letters that officials sent in their first districtwide mailing in December.

“I knew it was coming,” her mother, Tina Bouton, admitted recently.

Brooke loved her school, Manitou Park Elementary, and her teacher. But transportation problems at home made it difficult for Brooke to get to class on time — or at all.

“It’s complicated,” Tina Bouton said. “Between (Brooke’s) dad and me, he leaves before school for work, and I don’t have a car.”

The family lives too close to the school for Brooke to qualify for bus transportation, and her mother, who often works in the morning, would not allow Brooke to walk alone to school, saying it’s not the safest area. But Tina Bouton hadn’t really faced the problem until she got the nudge letter.

The day after it arrived, she marched into the school, and asked for help.

The letter, she said, was “a wake-up call.”

Across Washington, about 16 percent of public-school students were chronically absent during the 2014-15 school year, the latest data available.

That means they missed at least 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days, an average of about two absences a month.

In Tacoma, the chronic absenteeism rate was 22.8 percent in 2014-15, up from 19.5 percent in 2012-13.

The increase, combined with news that Washington schools had some of the highest chronic absenteeism rates in the country, prompted district officials to pay more attention to attendance.

The state also has made attendance a priority: In its plan to comply with a new federal education law, Washington will track schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Whether absences are excused or unexcused, a growing number of studies show that they hurt student achievement more than parents might guess. Students with a history of poor attendance are more likely to repeat a grade and tend to fall behind their peers in third-grade reading. By middle and high school, they also are more likely to fail courses and are less likely to graduate on time, if at all.

It’s no surprise that missing a lot of school hurts achievement. But new research shows even just one or two absences a month make a big difference.

Rogers, the pollster-turned-education researcher, stresses that nudge letters alone won’t make absences disappear, but his research suggests they’re a strong starting point.

“The idea is it’s insanely cost-effective and easy to implement,” he said. “It doesn’t require any teachers or schools to change what they’re doing, and that’s the sweet spot.”

“How do we mobilize and empower families to support student achievement … with scalable interventions?” Rogers said. “That’s the big picture for us.”

Rogers also found a spillover effect, with attendance improving for siblings of students targeted by the mailing. The effort took more than one letter — the families received up to five throughout the experiment. And even with the multiple reminders, attendance dropped off again two to six weeks after each mailing. But then the next letter, Rogers said, would create a new “attendance shock.”

Tacoma schools send their letters once every quarter.

In total, the Philadelphia experiment cost about $5.50 per household, compared to much costlier interventions like hiring a social worker or mentor.

Like other researchers, Rogers believes that parents tend to underestimate — or forget — how much their children miss school.

“Getting this discrete, actionable information to parents increases student achievement,” he said. “And parents want more of it once they get it.”

Kate Frazier was the principal of Lister Elementary last year, when the Tacoma pilot program began. And after the first batch of nudge letters went out in January 2016, she said the phone started ringing. Some parents were upset; others confused. A third group, however, called to discuss what they could do to fix the problem.

“That’s exactly what we were hoping for,” Frazier said.

Those calls offered school staff and parents a chance to talk about why students were missing so much school. Whether students feared a bully, were ill or families were having car troubles, the nudge letters sparked a conversation that sometimes led to a solution.

“I felt it really opened the doors to our school,” she said.

As for Brooke, at Manitou Park, her mother’s trip to the school led to a plan that works for her family, and gets her to school on time.

Now Brooke’s mom or older sibling drops Brooke off an hour before classes start and, while she waits for the bell, Brooke works as a hallway monitor.

Brooke likes that job so much she pushes her mom even harder to get her to school.

“Oh, it makes her feel so important,” her mother said. “She hasn’t really missed school at all since then.

“In the mornings, she’s the one telling me now that she’s going to be late and we have to hurry,” she added. “I’m all like, ‘I am hurrying!’ and she says, ‘Hurrying isn’t fast enough!’ ”

For the past two months, Brooke has had near perfect attendance.