Myth buster: improving school attendance does not improve student outcomes

By James Ladwig and Allan Luke

Does improved student attendance lead to improved student achievement?

Join prime ministers, premiers and education ministers from all sides of politics if you believe it does. They regularly tell us about the need to “improve” or “increase” attendance in order to improve achievement.

We recently had unprecedented access to state government data on individual school and student attendance and achievement in over 120 schools  (as part of a major 2009-2013 study of the reform and leadership of schools serving Indigenous students and communities) so we decided to test the widely held assumption.

What we found is both surprising and challenging.

The overall claim that increased attendance is linked with improved achievement seems like common sense. It stands to reason that if a student attends more, s/he is more likely to perform better on annually administered standardised tests. The inverse also seems intuitive and common sensical: that if an individual student doesn’t attend, s/he is less likely to achieve well on these conventional measures.

But sometimes what appears to make sense about an individual student may not factually hold up when we look at the patterns across a larger school or system.

In our research we were studying background patterns on attendance and achievement using very conventional empirical statistical analysis.  What we found in first up was that, whatever else we may hope, school level attendance rates generally don’t change all that much.

Despite officially supported policies and high profile school and regional foci, schools making big improvement in attendance rates are the exception, and are very rare.

Further, we found, the vast majority (around 76%) of the level of school attendance empirically is related to geographic remoteness, the percentage of Indigenous kids, and levels of socio-economic marginalisation. These are matters that for the most part are beyond the purview of schools and systems to change. Most importantly and most surprisingly, we found there is no relationship between school attendance and school level NAPLAN results. This is the case whether you are looking at overall levels and rates of change or the achievement of specific groups of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

The particular policy story that improved attendance will improve or bootstrap conventional achievement has no basis in fact at a school level. The policy making and funding that goes into lifting attendance rates of whole schools or systems assumes erroneously that improvements in achievement by individual students will logically follow.

The bottom line is you can’t simply generalise an individual story and apply it to schools. The data shows this.

Further, and this is important in current reform debates, we observed that the very few schools with high percentages of Indigenous children that both increased attendance and achievement also had implemented significant curriculum and teaching method reforms over the same period examined.

In other words, attending school may or may not help generally, but improving achievement depends on what children do once we get them to school.

In our view, there is no short cut around the need for substantial ongoing reforms of curriculum and teaching methods and affiliated professional development for teachers.  Building quality teaching and learning relations are the problem and the solution – not attendance or testing or accountability policies per se.


ladwig_james James Ladwig                        Allan Luke 2  Allan Luke

James Ladwig is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and Adjunct Professor in the Victoria Institute of Victoria University.  He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform.

Allan Luke is Emeritus Professor in the ‎Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology and Adjunct Professor in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada, where he works mentoring first nations academics. He is an educator, researcher, and theorist studying multiliteracies, linguistics, family literacy, and educational policy. Dr. Luke has written or edited over 14 books and more than 140 articles and book chapters.

Here is  the full article:  Does improving school level attendance lead to improved school level achievement? An empirical study of indigenous educational policy in Australia.

4 thoughts on “Myth buster: improving school attendance does not improve student outcomes

  1. David Zyngier says:

    James and Allan, it comes as no surprise that policy makers and politicians once again will not let the evidence get in the way of an ideological obfuscation. The continued reluctance of politicians and their advisers to cherry pick evidence that suits their ideological positions should not surprise anyone.

    Thanks so much for this excellent research and for “busting another myth” of Minster Pyne et al.

  2. I am not surprised by the results of your research regarding school attendance. However, I do not entirely agree that “building quality teaching and learning relations are the problem and the solution”. All students deserve access to “quality” teachers – and our teachers today are more highly trained by our universities than at any time in our past. However, the very same ‘quality’ teacher will not achieve the same student outcomes in each of the wide variety (and quality) of educational environments that define schooling in Australian today. You can keep plugging for more and more and more and more training and improving the quality of teachers, but the achievement gap will not close until all students also have access to the equal opportunity that the proper and equitable provision of educational resources, not restricted to but including access to ‘quality’ teaching. As for curriculum – well, what a political mess!

  3. Allan Luke says:

    Thanks for your comments, Irene. To digress from the attendance argument, your comments raise a serious matter. Jim and I deliberately referred to ‘quality teaching and learning relations’ and not to ‘quality teachers’. There’s a difference. For several decades now, we’ve both been involved in Queensland and New South Wales studies and interventions around quality pedagogy, referring to face-to-face teaching and learning relations between and by students and teachers. It’s our view, corroborated by both large and medium scale empirical studies like the one we presented, school reform case studies, and successful reforms in several countries, that systems and schools that place a premium on pedagogy can make progress and breakthroughs with low socioeconomic and marginalized communities.

    However, in the past decade this has been turned into policies around ‘quality teachers’ in the UK, US and now Australia. Think about it: a policy shift from ‘quality teaching’ to ‘quality teachers’. The result has been a shift away from mobilizing total systems, schools, resources – human, fiscal, institutions, professional development, curriculum materials etc. – with an eye on improved achievement and engagement through improved teaching and learning. The shift has been towards ‘fixing’ teachers – through teacher testing, higher tertiary entrance requirements, publication of teacher ‘results’ (“payment by results” as Matthew Arnold, Poet Laureate and Inspector of Schools once termed it), loss of security of employment, short term contracting, etc. etc.

    So back to your comments. Quality teaching is about human social, cognitive and cultural relationships in enabling contexts. Quality teaching takes the efforts of a whole village. Our view is that improved achievement via improved teaching and learning requires a systemic approach (equitable funding, instructionally-focused school leadership, relevant professional development, whole-school curriculum planning, meaningful school/community/culture/parent relations, careful formative use of data on student prior knowledge and achievement) – not a ‘fix the deficit professional’ approach (which does, indeed sell newspapers, and successfully deflects attention from ministries and bureaucracies). As I said in a previous blog, the policy alchemy for this kind of reform is daunting for any Minister, Ministry and senior bureaucracy (especially on a 3 or 4 year electoral cycle). But it has and is being done elsewhere.

    I don’t think either of us would say that there’s anything wrong with programs and efforts to improve attendance – but the data says to us that better attendance doesn’t necessarily improve achievement.

  4. Wayne says:

    Does poor attendance help raise the level of academic achievement? Have you taught in schools with poor attendance? I don’t think this is what Hattie had in mind when he talked about “spaced practice” ;). Yes teacher quality is highly important, but this is quickly eroded when kids aren’t even at school often enough to be involved in Establishing Rules and Procedures Recognising Adherence to Rules and Procedures (Mazarno, 2011). How much “DEEP” learning can happen when students aren’t there often enough other than to “recall” basic fact and concepts (if lucky) – learning quickly becomes very shallow.

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