SSN Memo

Attendance Incentives

Policy field

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Wayne State University

The Detroit Education Research Partnership has worked closely with the Detroit Public Schools  Community District since 2017 to identify barriers to attendance and use research to inform  improvements to attendance policy and practice. I appreciate the opportunity to share what  research has shown about the effectiveness of incentive interventions and to provide a framework  for thinking through their use among our partners.  


Absenteeism should be understood as an ecological problem. While parent or student  motivation may contribute to absenteeism for some students, what motivation means and  whether incentives will impact motivation is complicated and contextual. 

The major drivers of high absenteeism in Detroit and other cities are related to broader  social and economic inequalities that will not be overcome through incentives. Research on incentives and other “nudges” for attendance suggests a small effect, if any;  and one major study on attendance incentives found negative unintended consequences. If attendance incentives are used as part of a broader attendance improvement strategy, we  recommend using Balu and Ehrlich’s(2018) framework to design, implement, and evaluate incentives. Their framework asks designers to consider the following questions: 1. Problem diagnosis: What are the specific attendance problems/causes that need to  be solved? 

2. Selection of incentive(s): What type of incentive should be implemented in order  to address the identified problem and change behavior? 

3. Implementation planning: How can the incentive be implemented in ways that  increase its salience and decrease tradeoffs

4. Evaluation and revision: What do evaluation results of incentive-based  approaches indicate about effectiveness and how to improve subsequent  implementation? 

Motivation in the Theory of Absenteeism 

Our research, like others, has theorized that school attendance and absenteeism is a “wicked  problem” shaped by individual level factors, family circumstances, school and neighborhood  characteristics, and the macro-economic and policy context (Childs & Lofton, 2021; Gottfried &  Gee, 2017; Lenhoff & Pogodzinski, 2018; Singer et al., 2021). Incentives, then, might theoretically  affect attendance for students or parents who lack motivation for getting to school at the individual  level. However, from interviews with parents, we have learned that out-of-school barriers are  significant, and “motivation” is complex and interrelated with these barriers in a way

that  incentives are unlikely to overcome for most families.

“Motivation” around attendance is shaped by repeated experiences in context. Incentives do not  necessarily address the contextual factors that are demotivating. For example, one east side parent  we spoke to explained that her son takes DDOT to school, and that repeated instances of missing  the bus (along with unsafe conditions and too-far distances to walk) have changed her son’s  behavior around attendance. He does not see the bus as reliable, and that influences his decision  to attend school on some days. Motivation may play some role in missing school for this student,  but it is not clear whether incentives would increase his attendance, absent other interventions that  changed his relationship with the bus.  

Other high school students we spoke to suggested that broader cultural issues at the school, such  as few strong relationships and unengaging curriculum, also shape their “motivation” about school.  This might affect their decision-making, and attendance incentives probably wouldn’t resolve  those issues. 

Most parents with whom we spoke for our research identified significant out-of-school barriers,  especially related to health and transportation. We did not find evidence that parents or students  “don’t care” about school; rather, we found evidence that they face significant obstacles to  attendance. Families whose children had good attendance sometimes faced similar obstacles, but  they typically had greater resources to draw on, such as higher incomes, a stronger social network,  and more reliable personal transportation. High rates of absenteeism in Detroit are related to social  and economic inequalities. Detroit faces the greatest challenges compared to other cities. 

Large Cities Ranked by Structural and Environmental Barriers to Attendance 

Research on Attendance Incentives and Nudges 

Research on attendance incentives and nudges suggests they could have unintended negative  consequences. There is one major study that tests the causal impact of incentives on attendance.  That study, by Robinson et al. (2021), found that attendance awards that were communicated in  advance had no impact and that attendance declined after the awards stopped. The study also  found that surprise awards that were given retrospectively (e.g., perfect attendance awards) had a  demotivating effect and actually decreased attendance. 

Research on other attendance interventions to “nudge” families, such as new forms of  communication, shows a very small impact. For instance: 

Robinson et al. (2018a) found that targeting parental beliefs through communication  decreased chronic absenteeism in a district from 5.5% to 4.5%. 

Lasky-Fink et al. (2021) changed the language in truancy letters to affect behavior. It  reduced absences for students by 0.07 days compared to the original letter. Robinson et al. (2018b) found that many students want to participate in behavioral  commitment devices (such as an “attendance contracts”) but that these things ultimately do  not change student behavior. 

There are different kinds of school-based attendance incentives (e.g., awards, pizza parties,  free dress day, Pistons tickets), but “there is minimal research or evidence on their  effectiveness” (Balu & Ehrlich, 2018, p. 96). 

Because of the limited evidence of the effect of incentives and the theoretically different role of  incentives across different grades, Balu and Ehrlich (2018) recommend that school and district  leaders are very intentional about their design and implementation. They recommend the following  framework to guide development: 

1. Problem diagnosis: What are the specific attendance problems/causes that need to be  solved? In other words, what attendance barriers can be solved through incentives? 2. Selection of incentive(s): What type of incentive should be implemented in order to  address the identified problem and change behavior? In other words, who should be the  target of the incentive and what kind of incentive might induce changed behavior? 3. Implementation planning: How can the incentive be implemented in ways that increase  its salience and decrease tradeoffs

4. Evaluation and revision: What do evaluation results of incentive-based approaches  indicate about effectiveness and how to improve subsequent implementation? 

The Detroit Education Research Partnership is grateful for the opportunity to partner with DPSCD  to better understand attendance challenges and use research to inform solutions. We are eager to  build on our existing work to evaluate any new attendance strategy in partnership with the district.  Please let me know if you have questions or would like to discuss these findings further.