More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, lost instructional time is top of mind for anyone connected to education. Student absenteeism has only become a more pressing challenge, with school administrators driving across town looking for missing students and districts struggling to keep their most marginalized pupils online and engaged.
Indeed, even prior to the pandemic, regular attendance was a challenge for many students. Those living in poverty or with disabilities are more likely to miss school than their wealthier peers without disabilities, and absenteeism generally harms academic performance. In Chicago, for example, it was particularly bad: At least 20 percent of students missed more than three weeks of school in the 2017–18 academic year
A recent NBER working paper explores how a mentoring program in the city called Check & Connect affected absenteeism and academic outcomes. Check & Connect is an intervention developed by the University of Minnesota and recommended by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse as a way to improve school attendance. The program pairs individual students and their families with a mentor who establishes a personal connection, has regular check-ins, and works to keep students and families engaged in the learning process.
The authors partnered with Chicago Public Schools to randomly assign first through eighth grade students from the south and west sides of the city with a Check & Connect adult mentor. The project included two trials, one conducted during the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years, and another during the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years. The original cohort included 487 students across twenty-three schools, and the second cohort included 348 students across nine of the original twenty-three. Students were eligible for the program if they had missed between ten and thirty-five days of school in the previous year, and were otherwise randomly selected.
Overall, the program yielded modest positive results for fifth through seventh graders. These students attended an average of 4.2 additional school days compared to peers who did not participate. There is some indication that the program becomes more effective in the second year, after mentors have formed relationships with their students, but this finding could also have been due to random chance. The program did not impact attendance rates for first through fourth graders, nor did it affect test scores or GPAs.
The fact that this program worked for older students but not younger ones is not especially surprising. Middle schoolers have more autonomy over whether they attend school than do elementary peers, and they are more willing and able to form meaningful relationships with non-familial adults. Though it is unfortunate that the program did not produce short-term academic gains, it was not designed to boost these outcomes.
Check & Connect costs approximately $1,700 per student, which divides out to about $400 per additional day of attendance for fifth through seventh graders. This is relatively expensive compared to another intervention tested in Chicago, the Chicago Attendance Project, which mailed families information regarding their child’s attendance. The project increased attendance by only about one day, but added a daily cost of only $6–$11. Still, even though Check & Connect students didn’t see immediate academic gains, it is quite likely that they received more benefit on a personal level from having a mentor than from their families receiving a mailer.
As districts across the country consider and plan wide-scale, high-dosage tutoring programs, tutors will ideally serve as natural mentors to their students. While making up for learning loss matters, so too does reestablishing deep connections within school communities. Tutors have the potential to boost academic success alongside regular attendance and meaningful engagement, and should be encouraged to form deep relationships and support their students in a holistic way.
SOURCE: Jonathan Guryan, Sandra Christenson, Ashley Cureton, Ijun Lai, Jens Ludwig, Catherine Schwarz, Emma Shirey, Mary Clair Turner, “The effect of mentoring on school attendance and academic outcomes: Randomized evaluation of the check and connect program,” (NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 27661, 2020).