Adapting tactics that have helped drive more people to the polls, or persuade homeowners to use less electricity, schools are now trying to boost student attendance with “nudge” letters that compare students’ attendance rates with averages for their school and district.
For the past two decades, scientists have found a number of easy ways to make significant changes in people’s behavior.
To get voters to the polls, for example, researchers found that sending them copies of their voting histories along with their neighbors’ records was 10 times better at increasing turnout.
Energy companies have increased conservation by sending a report on homeowners’ electricity use compared with nearby households.
Now schools are trying something similar.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In Tacoma 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.
Like the voting and energy efforts, 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.
In Tacoma, the first district to use nudge letters in this state, Lister Elementary last year got similar results in a pilot program.
After just one round of letters at Lister, 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.
That’s part of why districts like Tacoma are looking for new ways to ensure students show up every day. After the success at Lister Elementary last year, Tacoma officials have fielded calls from the Bethel, Franklin Pierce, Monroe, Peninsula, Puyallup and University Park school districts.
Seattle Public Schools also says it plans to explore nudge letters as part of a larger campaign to improve attendance but, like Tacoma, would first pilot them in select schools.
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.”
In behavioral science, nudge theory describes the idea that indirect suggestions can influence individuals’ decisions.
It’s a concept that excites Rogers, a public-policy professor at Harvard University.
He spoke passionately as he described the fundraising and get-out-the-vote campaigns he designed for Democrats in a past life. He’s also written about how subtle prompts can succeed in driving more people to get flu shots, schedule colonoscopies or make concrete plans to join a gym.
In one example, 28 percent of seniors at Yale University got a tetanus shot after they were prompted to review their schedules and consider when they could visit the health center on campus. Only 3 percent of seniors who were simply encouraged to get the shot did so.
Rogers left politics years ago but brought his enthusiasm for nudge theory into education.
“How do we mobilize and empower families to support student achievement … with scalable interventions?” Rogers said. “That’s the big picture for us.”
In one experiment, Rogers worked with 203 schools in Philadelphia. After those schools sent nudge letters home, total absences declined by 6 percent, and chronic absenteeism went down, too.
The study randomly assigned students into four groups, two of which received one of two versions of the nudge letter, a third that got a general attendance reminder, and a fourth that didn’t receive anything. That kind of experimental design is considered the gold standard because it gives researchers confidence that the effects they are seeing stem from the change and not some other factor.
In the families in the experiment’s control group (who received no letter), 36 percent of the students were chronically absent at the end of the experiments. In the families that received nudge letters, only 32 percent were.
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.