TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Filling the desks: Teachers make a difference

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For all our efforts to understand the science behind learning and effective instruction, it can be easy to forget the most basic prerequisite for school success: showing up.

For obvious reasons, student attendance makes a difference in how much students learn and the likelihood that they will graduate from high school. A recent study by Stanford's Jing Liu and Susanna Loeb (yes, it's all Susanna Loeb this TQB!) examines how teachers influence student attendance rates. Their work reveals that for some students, having teachers who encourage good attendance can mean the difference between dropping out or walking proudly across the graduation stage.

Looking at middle and high school attendance in a large California district, and controlling for factors such as time of day, achievement, and past attendance rates, they found clear evidence that teachers vary significantly in their ability to motivate students to come to class. Their work suggests that teachers who regularly have full classes one year are very likely to have high student attendance in subsequent years. This is not by chance: there is something about these teachers that enables them to engage their students year after year. The effects aren't massive—after all, most students recognize their need to attend class regardless of who is teaching—but they do translate into a meaningful reduction in dropout rates.

So, what can we do with this piece of information? Most teachers would bristle at any suggestion that they be evaluated, even in small part, on the basis of their students' attendance. There is, however, some clear momentum for increased accountability at the school level. Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Tennessee, among others, all plan to use chronic student absenteeism as one way to gauge school performance, and we're eager to see what lessons we'll learn along the way.