By Susan Dawson and Susan Millea

E3 Alliance uses objective data and focused community collaboration to align our education systems so all students succeed and lead Central Texas to economic prosperity.

Children’s Optimal Health enables communities to visualize the health of their neighborhoods, identify assets and needs, and unearth opportunities for collaborative change.

The work of E3 Alliance, Children’s Optimal Health and our partners depends on Action Research: using timely data to influence decisions and practices to increase student outcomes. For E3 Alliance, this Action Research often involves accessing and analyzing many millions of records – multiple years of descriptive fields, indicators, and outcomes for every student in the state from Pre-K through college graduation and into the workforce, so that we can provide critically-needed evidence of  longitudinal trends and results that can support higher student achievement. Such analysis is only possible through the state Education Research Centers (ERCs) – massive data warehouses of longitudinally linked, encrypted student records data for Texas.  When necessary, we supplement state data with primary research into issues not previously investigated.
This brief outlines one great example: understanding the trends and factors associated with Central Texas student attendance.  This research was undertaken by E3 Alliance using the ERCs, our own in-house E3 Alliance Education Research System, and nationally ground-breaking primary research.
In 2011, superintendents across the region asked us to bring the community together to address student attendance because of its “triple bottom line” impact:

  1. If a student is not present at school, s/he has no opportunity to learn
  2. It is much more difficult for teachers to teach effectively when they are “catching up” students who have missed lessons rather than taking the whole class forward
  3. State funding for schools is based on daily attendance, so every day missed costs schools money.

An E3 Alliance analysis of descriptive statistics provided some surprising findings:
–          Central Texas students are absent over 2.4 million days per year
–          Central Texas students are absent at significantly higher rates than the state average at every grade level
–          Especially in the transition to and through high school, Central Texas absenteeism is worse than the rest of the state.
Digging into this data further yielded even more interesting findings and linkages to student achievement:
–          Those students who were retained in 9th grade had four times as many absences as their peers and were ten times as likely to drop out
–          While NON low income students in our region have the same graduation rates as the rest of the state, our low income students graduated at  5-7% percentage points behind their state counterparts every year for the last decade
–          And these same low income Central Texas students have almost 20% worse attendance than their low income peers around the state.  Why?
To understand the WHO/WHERE/WHY behind absenteeism, E3 Alliance joined forces with Children’s Optimal Health, a National Neighborhood Indicators Partner of the Urban Institute.  We began with a national literature review, and found that there are no robust statistically validated studies in the country addressing why students are absent, where, and at what frequencies. So we undertook the most comprehensive absence reasons study in the country, using detailed data collected from 9 schools representative of the entire region.
We found information critical for our schools and our broader community. For instance, 48% of all absences reported are due to acute illness.  While this number is likely an over count (if a parent doesn’t want to tell the truth about an absence, the easiest excuse is “he came down with something and was out sick”) it tells us that being proactive about illness before outbreaks happen can make a huge impact on absenteeism.
Perhaps most interesting was a propensity study of different student populations and their contributions to absenteeism. These findings were both surprising and actionable.  For example, low income students make up almost 50% of students in the region.  One might think that due to lack of insurance, transportation, or primary care providers, these students would have more illness-related absences than their non- low income peers. In fact, except for mental illness, low income students actually have proportionally fewer illness-related absences than their representation of the population would predict!  However, they are responsible for significantly more (ranging from 64-83%) of the absences due to NON-illness (skipping, family responsibility, transportation issues, etc.) than their population propensity.
By mapping the data we have been able to discern differing patterns of school attendance across neighborhoods. Spatial analysis has enabled us to identify ‘hotspots’ of student absenteeism, differentiating types of illness and other absence reasons. This in turn enables our community to acknowledge school attendance as a community value for school-aged children, and to understand its patterns at the neighborhood, not just the campus or district level.  Armed with this knowledge, community partners can tailor interventions to match the needs of children and families for both health and non-health related issues. One conclusion is if our community can address the root causes of non-illness related absences by our low income students, we can likely have a very positive and tangible impact on graduation rates that currently lag the rest of the state, while supporting healthy students and families.
“Improving student attendance is one of the most important ways our communities can help schools. Our kids can’t learn if they are skipping out, and our schools don’t get paid when students aren’t there. This is something that we as a region can change, and E3 Alliance is helping to lead the way.”

–          Jesus Chavez, Superintendent, Round Rock ISD

This is one of many examples where E3 Alliance and Children’s Optimal Health are leading the state and nation in leveraging objective data and focused research to provide the tools to make better decisions and change education outcomes for all of our students.  Our partnerships with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, IBM, The University of Texas at Austin, and others make this Action Research possible. This study was funded by St. David’s Foundation and Central Health.
Susan Dawson is the President and Executive Director of E3 Alliance.
Susan Dawson photo
Susan Millea, Ph.D is the Community GIS Facilitator for Children’s Optimal Health.