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  • Tony Wold, Ed.D.

Prevention vs. Remediation Part 4: Myths and Facts of Investing in Absence Prevention

I’ve spent several weeks discussing the cost of remediation and the benefits of focusing on absence prevention. So while we all intellectually know—kids who attend school regularly do better than those who do not, it is still difficult to invest in prevention. As an example, when we look at the budget of a city or government, usually the biggest line items in the budget cover only a few areas:

  1. Community Services: Police, Fire, Defense, and Education

  2. Social Services: Health Care, and Community Services

  3. Infrastructure: Roads, Sewers, and Water

When it comes time to address the budget, the services above that are having challenges are funded in a reactive manner. Multiple dry seasons or wildfires? Increase in the fire budget. Growth in crime? Up the police budget. Lost learning concerns? Increase the remediation budget. What does not happen, however, is investments when times are not pushing an issue to the front.

Understanding the reluctance of investing in prevention requires a quick analysis of reasons why some LEAs are reluctant to implement attendance communication and management tools that will link all families back to the system. Some of the major myths that come up as reasons to avoid innovation are:

Myth 1: “We can do it ourselves”

Fact: Sending an ongoing series of research-based communications to all parents, differentiated by grade span would require a team of educators focusing on the content with no proven track record. It requires graphic designers and staff to make it engaging, coordinate the delivery, as well as provide support to others in the organization. This focus would entail a large investment in additional personnel at a time when there are not enough staff to provide direct support to students. An LEA could do a portion by themselves, but at a much greater cost per student and this would divert existing staff away from direct outreach to students and families, which is essential in a complete model. Sure, you can make a car: hire welders, engineers, and designers but most people understand that buying a car from a car manufacturer is the most cost-effective way to go.

Myth 2: “We do not need this service, if we did it would already be in place”

Fact: This myth is more on the qualitative scale, yet many of the greatest innovations are things that society did not have or even know that they needed. Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, and even Amazon changed the way we travel and shop. The concept for each was basic, but the service, algorithms, and logistics were so superior to other options that they are not embedded into what we do. Intuitively, having a prevention program that provides support, guidance, and motivation to improve attendance will lead to higher student achievement.

Myth 3: “A contract equal to $25 per student is too expensive”

Fact: This is a matter of perspective and scale. A gallon of water is a large amount if you pour it into a pot on your kitchen stove, but the same water does not even look to exist if poured into an empty swimming pool. In Texas, the apportionment for one day of student attendance is approximately $37 and LEAs are paid only for the days that students attend. For a 10,000-student district with 95% attendance, the total revenue is $351,500 for one day. This also means that the district is not being paid for 5% or 500 students and is losing out on $18,500 per day.

The myth that it is too expensive is because the contract is listed for a year on the board agenda, which in this example would be $250,000 or $1,388 per day. If the results of the program increase ADA by just 0.5% for the LEA the additional funding per day would be $1,850 (using 95.5% @ $37/day). How is $462 additional revenue per day too expensive when the results mean that there were 9,000 fewer absences and 54,000 more minutes of instruction received by students toward improving student achievement? School Districts are not businesses that work to have a profit, but in this scenario, the additional revenue allows even better service while decreasing the number of students who might need remediation.

Myth 4: “Direct mail does not work in the electronic world of today.”

Fact: The world has changed dramatically, and indeed, texting and email are valuable tools for disposable information. This is information that is meant to be consumed immediately, with no lasting action, and then disposed of. Reminders for back-to-school night or to bring in an item the next day work very well in this mode.

In a study of email open and click rates, it was found that the lifespan of an electronic message was usually less than 24 hours with the decline rate so steep as to have negligible access after that time. Open rates were below 50% and click rates were often in the low teens, at best. Worse, the percentage of undelivered messages grew each time with very little ability to update contacts. More importantly, student data is private and must be delivered in a manner that cannot be breached. How many individuals will bother with two-factor authentication, changing password requirements, and logging into secure systems to view information?

Direct mail is secure. Direct mail is something that is opened. It is delivered to the home or returned if the resident has moved. When the pandemic began one district mailed a letter home to any family that had a student that had not checked in. They received a 52% response rate. This letter was sent after they had texted, emailed, and made phone calls to the home with less than an 8% response rate. The post office may have some financial challenges, but it will not be going out of business and will remain the most secure and reliable method of communication.

Myth 5: “Preventative Messaging takes money away from the classroom that is better served supporting students.”

Fact: In California, there is a section in the education code that defines the rights and responsibilities of teachers. Education Code 44805 outlines the basic duties “Every teacher in the public schools shall enforce the course of study, the use of legally authorized textbooks, and the rules and regulations prescribed for schools. Education Code 44807 outlines that “Every teacher in public schools shall hold pupils to a strict account for their conduct on the way to and from school, on the playgrounds, or during recess.” Education Code 44809 outlines that “A state school register shall be kept by every teacher in the public schools.”

There are other provisions and rights within the code, but the in the simplest of terms monitoring and certifying legal attendance, supervision of students, and following the course of instruction provided by law are the primary responsibilities of teachers. Using a system to improve attendance has the potential to take work off of the teacher in the classroom as the time investment to work with students who miss class and fall behind can be decreased allowing for more focused time on daily instruction. The required documentation for all attendance is very detailed and LEAs already have hired additional staff to support that function. The question is should that staff spend time delivering mandatory, and preventative communications and preparing the mailings (since student privacy limits electronic communications)? Or is their time better spent on direct outreach to families and students?

The concerns regarding “lost learning” have been so significant that public schools have additional funding for remediation and intervention from both the Federal and State legislatures. While this is helpful, prevention is proactive and has the singular goal of not having to implement remediation; ultimately the goal is to reduce the initial number of students who ever need remediation

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