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Snail mail helps solve attendance problems

Every school district in the country could reduce student absenteeism by 10 to 15 percent immediately—and it wouldn’t even cost that much, Harvard Public Policy Professor Todd Rogers says.

The intervention Rogers and his team developed, which he says researchers have validated in randomized experiments involving tens of thousands of students in more than a dozen districts nationwide, is startlingly simple: A few times a year, parents get letters telling them how many days of school their children have missed.

“Parents underestimate their kids’ absences by a factor of two,” Rogers says. By correcting these false impressions, the mailed notices seem to spur improvement all on their own.

The communications have to go out by mail, Rogers says. Text messages get lost in the daily shuffle, but pieces of paper “become social artifacts,” he says.


LINK TO MAIN ARTICLE: K12 attendance in action


“The majority of families put them on the fridge or put them on the kitchen counter, and they actually have a shelf life in the home.”

The program costs between $5 and $10 for each extra day of attendance it generates, Rogers says—far less than the intensive outreach, mentoring and counseling programs that can also take a bite out of chronic absenteeism.

But for maximum impact, the mailings must conform to a research-based template. To help districts implement the program correctly, Rogers co-founded a for-profit company, In Class Today, that does the work for a fee.

Although Rogers freely acknowledges that his program won’t solve all attendance problems, he says superintendents love the fact that it can be implemented with a single executive decision.

“Of course, it should complement a bigger strategy,” Rogers says. “But usually those bigger programs take time and buy-in and real organizational change. In the meantime, being able to get a 10 or 15 percent reduction starting tomorrow is pretty good.”


Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.