Panel Paper: Principal Quality and Student Absences

Friday, November 9, 2018
Hoover - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Brendan Bartanen, Vanderbilt University

Policymakers are increasingly concerned with decreasing student absenteeism. Recent reports find that approximately 15 percent of students are “chronically absent” each year, which is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the instructional days in a school year. A mounting body of evidence demonstrates that missing school negatively affects student learning and is associated with a wide range of non-test-based outcomes, including dropout, drug use, and crime. Increased attention to student absences is exemplified by recent reforms in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires states to include chronic absenteeism rates as part of their report cards to the federal government. Additionally, as part of the ESSA reform that allows states to choose at least one indicator of school quality or student success to include in their state accountability plan, 36 states have included chronic absenteeism or a related indicator.

While prior work establishes that teachers contribute to variation in student absences (e.g., Gershenson, 2016; Jackson, 2016; Liu & Loeb, 2017), the effect of principals has been overlooked. A handful of studies have estimated principal effects on student achievement (e.g., Grissom, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2015; Dhuey & Smith, 2018; Chiang, Lipscomb, & Gill, 2016), generally finding that principals are the second most important school input to student learning (after teachers). Yet there is reason to suspect that principals’ effects on absenteeism may be larger than for achievement. In contrast to achievement, principals have plausibly more direct influence on absences, through their control over school-level absence policies, school climate, and family or community engagement.

This study estimates principal effects on student absences in a value-added (VA) framework. I estimate a two-way fixed effects model (principal and school) that isolates the contributions of individual principals from confounding school-level factors. My use of statewide data from Tennessee over more than a decade allows for the construction of connected networks of principals and schools that are larger than those observed in the existing literature, improving the quality of the estimates. I also draw on data from Tennessee’s educator evaluation system to examine the extent to which effectiveness measures (e.g., rubric-based scores from central office supervisors) are predictive of principals’ contributions to increasing attendance.

Preliminary findings show that the standard deviation of principal VA to standardized absences (0.24) is larger than for achievement (0.21 in math, 0.12 in reading, 0.15 in science). Similar to findings for teachers, correlations between absence VA and achievement VA are close to zero. The exception is unexcused absences and math achievement; principals who decrease unexcused absences also tend to have greater math growth in their schools. Finally, principals with higher average ratings from supervisors have higher achievement growth, but there is no correlation with absence VA. These results provide evidence that accountability metrics that focus solely on achievement fail to capture an important dimension of principal effectiveness.