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Program Profile: Using Absenteeism Information to “Nudge” Attendance (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Evidence Rating: Promising - One study Promising - One study

Date: This profile was posted on May 20, 2019

Program Summary

This program uses a “nudge” postcard to reduce student absenteeism by increasing parents’ or guardians’ awareness of non-attendance. The postcard is designed to motivate them to encourage their children to improve attendance and academic performance. The program is rated Promising. There was a statistically significant decrease in posttreatment absenteeism for the intervention group, compared with the control group.

This program’s rating is based on evidence that includes at least one high-quality randomized controlled trial.

Program Description

Program Goals
This program is designed to reduce student absenteeism by increasing parents’ or guardians’ awareness of non-attendance through the use of “nudge” postcards containing information about their children’s school attendance. Increasing awareness of non-attendance is thought to motivate parents or guardians to actively encourage their children to improve attendance and academic performance (Rogers et al. 2017).

Program Components/Target Populations
Parents or guardians of students in grades 1–12 in the School District of Philadelphia received postcards with one of the two following messages: 1) a general version that encourages guardians to improve their student’s attendance, and 2) a more specific version that encourages guardians to improve their student’s attendance by including specific information about their child’s attendance history. The postcards were mailed from the superintendent’s office at the same time as student report cards.

The first version of the postcard read: “Dear Parent/Guardian of [Student Full Name], Attendance matters and we need your help this year. A few absences every month can add up to weeks of lost learning over the year. Missing school, whether for excused or unexcused reasons, disrupts a student’s education. You can play a big role in improving [Student First Name]’s attendance. If you have questions, please call (xxx)-xxx-xxxx or email _______@gmail.com.”

The second version of the postcard read: “Dear Parent/Guardian of [Student Full Name], Attendance matters and we need your help this year. [Student First Name] missed [Student Absences] day(s) of school last year [Multiplier Text]. A few absences every month can add up to weeks of lost learning over the year. Missing school, whether for excused or unexcused reasons, disrupts a student’s education. You can play a big role in improving [Student First Name]’s attendance. If you have questions, please ca (xxx)-xxx-xxxx or email _______@gmail.com.”

Program Theory
This program was based on findings from research on nudge messages. Nudge messages are meant to encourage or guide behavior in an unobtrusive manner and can influence people to make good decisions without restricting their freedom (Halpern 2015; Kahneman 2012). For this program, the nudge postcard was used to encourage parents and guardians to improve their student’s attendance by providing information about the student’s attendance record. Providing these facts is thought to help correct parents’ and guardians’ inaccurate perceptions of how often their students have missed school (Rogers 2014).

In addition, the message may increase parents’ and guardians’ perceptions that people are monitoring them and their student’s attendance. Research on accountability effects shows that people tend to conform to the expectations of those monitoring them (Lerner and Tetlock 1999).

Evaluation Outcomes

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Study 1
Posttreatment Absences (Days)
Rogers and colleagues (2017) found a statistically significant decrease (roughly 2.4 percent) in posttreatment absences for students in the pooled intervention groups who received postcards (i.e., the encourage condition and the encourage + self condition), compared with students in the control group, who did not receive any postcards.
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Evaluation Methodology

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Study 1
Rogers and colleagues (2017) conducted a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the effects of communicating with guardians of school-aged youth about absenteeism rates in public schools in Philadelphia. Postcards contained either a simple message stating the importance of attendance or a more personalized message that stated how many days of school the guardian’s child had missed in the prior year. Postcards were mailed to eligible households with report cards in October of 2014. Eligible households included those that had a child who was enrolled in public school (grades 1–12) in the 2014–2015 school year and had any absences the previous school year (while they were in grades K-11 during 2013-2014). Households were not eligible if the guardians had opted out of receiving mail or had an invalid address, if the student had graduated, withdrawn, or otherwise was not enrolled as of June 2014, if atypically burdensome circumstances existed (students who were flagged as having a disability or who were homeless), if the student’s home language was different than the language of the consent form, if the student had participated in the pilot study during spring 2014, or if the student had perfect attendance in the year prior to the study.

The study targeted only one student per household. For households with multiple students, one student was randomly assigned to the student–guardian pair. There were 51,197 eligible students, about 40 percent of the total school population representing 217 Philadelphia schools and 1,290 unique school-grade combinations. This yielded an average of 40 students per school-grade combination. Of the 51,197 eligible students, 38,187 student-guardian pairs were randomly assigned to one of the following three groups: 1) The encourage condition group, which received one postcard that stressed the importance of attendance, guardian efficacy (guardian influence on attendance), and absence reduction as part of the guardian’s role; 2) the encourage + self-condition group, which received one postcard that had the same content as the encourage condition postcard and the number of days the student missed; and 3) the control group, which did not receive any mail. The total sample comprised 38,187 students. The encourage condition group (n = 12,756) was 50 percent female, 53 percent black, and 69.4 percent were eligible for the federal school lunch program. They had missed an average of 13.17 days of school prior to the intervention. The encourage + self condition (n = 12,721) was 51 percent female, 53.7 percent black, and 69.2 percent were eligible for the federal school lunch program. They had missed an average of 13.08 days of school prior to the intervention. The control group (n = 12,710) was 51.5 percent female, 52.8 percent black, and 69.4 percent were eligible for the federal school lunch program. They had missed an average of 13.03 days of school prior to the intervention. There were no statistically significant demographic differences between the groups at baseline.

Changes in attendance were measured from attendance data provided by the school district. The attendance roll of participating students was limited to the period immediately after the postcards were sent (October 9, 2014) and before the district sent subsequent attendance mailings not included in the present study (December 31, 2014). Forty-three school days were included in the study period. The researchers fit an overall regression model and compared coefficients. The models included random effects, with students nested within schools, and fixed effects of grade level. Multilevel hierarchical modeling was used to determine whether the intervention had an impact on absenteeism. The researchers conducted subgroup analyses on absenteeism by grade level.
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Cost

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As sent through bulk mailing services, each postcard cost approximately $0.22 (Rogers et al. 2017).
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Implementation Information

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The messages were delivered by postcards that were mailed home as a supplement to the school report card. An example of the postcards can be found in the study by Rogers and colleagues (2017): https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/midatlantic/pdf/REL_2017252.pdf
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Other Information (Including Subgroup Findings)

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Rogers and colleagues (2017) also examined the impact of the intervention by grade level, specifically if the intervention affected the attendance of students in grades 1 through 8 differently from how it affected the attendance of students in grades 9 through 12. There were no statistically significant differences by grade level. Additionally, there were no statistically significant differences in attendance between students of guardians who received the simple message that attendance is important and students whose guardians received postcards with factual information about their students’ attendance records.
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Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Study 1
Rogers, Todd, Teresa Duncan, Tonya Wolford, John Ternovski, Shruthi Subramanyam, and Adrienne Reitano. 2017. A Randomized Experiment Using Absenteeism Information to “Nudge” Attendance. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.
https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/midatlantic/pdf/REL_2017252.pdf
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Halpern, David. 2015. Inside the Nudge Unit. London, England: WH Allen.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2012. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London, England: Penguin.

Lerner, Jennifer S., and Phillip E. Tetlock. 1999. “Accounting for the Effects of Accountability.” Psychological Bulletin 125(2):255–75.

Rogers, T. 2014. Parent Survey. Unpublished manuscript.
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Related Practices

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Following are CrimeSolutions.gov-rated practices that are related to this program:

Targeted Truancy Interventions
These interventions are designed to increase attendance for elementary and secondary school students with chronic attendance problems. The practice is rated Effective for improving attendance.

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:
Effective - More than one Meta-Analysis Education - Attendance/truancy
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Program Snapshot

Age: 5 - 18

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Black, Other

Geography: Urban

Setting (Delivery): Home, School

Program Type: Truancy Prevention, Reminders/Notifications

Targeted Population: Truants/Dropouts, Families

Current Program Status: Active

Listed by Other Directories: Model Programs Guide