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LAUSD Tackles Absenteeism With A Focus on Optimizing Resources

The second largest school district in the country is facing a common but pernicious problem: student absenteeism. In Los Angeles Unified School District, 14 percent of the more than 500,000 students miss more than 15 days of school a year, and another 18 percent miss between 8 and 14 days. This lost instruction is obviously detrimental to student outcomes. But additionally, absent students cost the district money, as state revenue is based on average daily attendance. If LAUSD had hit last year’s attendance target, they would have received $20 million more in revenue.

A new report, which is based on ERS's analysis, offers a suite of cost-effective and targeted strategies to address this problem. This fall, the LA Unified Advisory Task Forcea group of business, education, and civic leaderstapped ERS to analyze data, research promising practices and make recommendations. Our team worked with the district attendance team to analyze LASUD's student attendance trends, identified strengths and opportunities in the district's current strategies, and reviewed promising practices from targeted districts around the nation, including New York City, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Long Beach.

The findings revealed important aspects of the attendance problem in LA:

  • High-absence days were associated with three factors unrelated to specific schools and/or student groups: rain days, days before and after vacations, and Mondays and Fridays
  • 10 percent of schools contribute to about 25 percent of the attendance challengereducing absenteeism there could make a big impact
  • Students in poverty tend to miss more days of school compared to their non-poor peers

ERS then presented a series of recommended actions, based on promising practices from other districts. These were incorporated into the Task Force's report, which was presented to the school board and the superintendent on December 5:

  • A districtwide awareness effort
  • A direct mail program which would send personalized notes to parents of chronically absent students, noting how their child's attendance compared to peers, and emphasizing what parents can do about it
  • A neighborhood canvass program, phone banking, and texting
  • A cash incentive program for schools that improve attendance
  • School site intervention and monitoring programs, based on evidence from the other interventions

The district has already begun to test out some of these ideas in pilot programs at targeted schools and plans to expand this work as early as this spring. The district plans to closely monitor what works and what doesn't and take steps to scale successful programs the following year with state support. Currently, LAUSD spends about $40 million on efforts to get more students to class. The Task Force recommended re-evaluating that investment as well, to identify ways that current practices can be improved.

In the grand scheme of reforming educational systems, student attendance is a relatively straight-forward issue. Though students’ reasons for missing class are complex, the outcome measure is clear. And yet, it represents an excellent place for school systems to make an impact on both student achievement and district finances. If each child in LAUSD attended just one more day of school, he or she might get the introduction to a new novel the class will read for the next six weeks; or will experience the lab on kinetic energy that will open up a field of science. Moreover, LAUSD would receive an additional $30 million dollars, which could be invested in many impactful ways. LAUSD is demonstrating how partnership with an outside Task Force of civic-minded leaders, combined with good research and a commitment to pilot, monitor, and scale, could reap truly meaningful benefits.


LA Unified Advisory Task Force Final Report to the LA School Board (PDF)

ERS Analysis, Research, and Recommendations (PDF)

Media Coverage

"How LAUSD could reduce absenteeism, if it listens to outside advisors." The L.A. Times. Anna M Phillips, Dec 5, 2017

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