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Home Publications A Randomized Experiment Using Absenteeism Information to "Nudge" Attendance

A Randomized Experiment Using Absenteeism Information to "Nudge" Attendance

by Teresa Duncan, Adrienne Reitano, Todd Rogers, Shruthi Subramanyam, John Ternovski and Tonya Wolford

Reducing student absenteeism is a key part of the School District of Philadelphia's plan to boost graduation rates. One of the district's goals is to increase guardians' awareness of absenteeism, with the hope that greater awareness will lead to guardians' taking a more active role in improving their student's attendance and academic performance. In an effort to increase guardians' awareness of absenteeism, the School District of Philadelphia partnered with Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic to conduct a randomized controlled trial, which is based on the principles of "nudge" theory. Nudge theory is an approach used in the behavioral sciences that involves unobtrusive interventions to promote desired behaviors (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). In this study the "nudge" was a single postcard sent to guardians to test whether it could reduce absenteeism and whether one message on the postcard had a greater impact on reducing absenteeism than another did. In October 2014 postcards with different messages--one encouraging guardians to improve their student's attendance and the other encouraging guardians to improve their student's attendance and adding specific information about the child's attendance history--were sent to the homes of students in grades 1-12 to see what impact, if any, the message would have on absenteeism through the end of December 2014. A control group received no mailings from the district. The absence information provided on the postcard was for the previous school year (2013/14). The study found that a single postcard that encouraged guardians to improve their student's attendance reduced absences by roughly 2.4 percent. There was no statistically significant difference in absences between students whose guardians were sent one message rather than the other. An additional analysis to examine whether there was a differential impact of the postcards on elementary versus secondary students' absences showed that the effect of the postcard did not differ between students in grades 1-8 and students in grades 9-12. This study has three main limitations. First, the unexpectedly large number of unique school-grade combinations limited statistical power by yielding an average of 40 students per school-grade combination. Second, students who did not have reliable mailing addresses were excluded from the study. Third, the number of school days analyzed in the study occurred within a short timeframe (there were 43 school days between October 9 and December 31). Even without any outreach from the district, the average student missed very few days of school in this timeframe. So if the average student whose household did not receive a postcard was absent for only three days of school, any intervention could reduce the average absence by a maximum of three days. The following are appended: (1) Treatment materials; and (2) Data and methods.

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