Michael Gottfried's spotlight on student absenteeism and its academic impact

November 14, 2023

Michael Gottfried, an economist and professor in the Policy, Organizations, Leadership, and Systems Division at Penn GSE, has emerged as a prominent figure in the field of absenteeism and truancy. Gottfried's journey into this research terrain began two years after the launch of the School of the Future in Philadelphia, where he, as a graduate student at the time, was part of a team investigating the impact of a technological revolution on student achievement. However, the focus quickly shifted when a teacher at the School of the Future voiced a pressing concern: "Half of my class isn't here."

The academic consequences of absenteeism have sparked deep concern among educators, administrators, and researchers, particularly amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. An analysis by Stanford economist Thomas Dee reveals a staggering 91 percent increase in students chronically absent—missing over 10 percent of school days—between the 2018–19 and 2021–22 school years, totaling an estimated 6.5 million students. This surge in chronic absenteeism affects diverse groups, including students with disabilities, with rates nearing 40 percent.

"Students from risk groups were already engaging in high levels of absences before the pandemic,” Gottfried observes, “and those have just gone through the roof."

This dilemma led Gottfried to recognize that the emphasis on technology, including smart boards and laptops, was somewhat missing the mark. The subsequent shift in perspective unveiled a more pressing issue—the importance of student attendance. As he emphasizes, "Every day matters," with test scores declining not only after prolonged absences but even after just a single missed day.

The ongoing pandemic has compounded the challenges leading to absenteeism, with child and family poverty emerging as significant contributors. The lack of resources in impoverished families often translates to issues such as unreliable transportation and a lack of a well-resourced support network. These factors, combined with the disruptions caused by the pandemic, further amplify the problem.

Read more at The Atlantic.