A University of California, Santa Barbara study published in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis indicates that 50,000 fewer kindergarten students could be chronically absent from school each year if they take the school bus each day.
The study was published this week in the American Educational Research Association’s peer-reviewed journal. AERA said the study, which was conducted last year for the State of California's Truancy Reduction Pilot Projects program, is the first of its kind to tie school bus service to kindergarten attendance as well as the effect on the child’s education, routine and family stress. The study was released as an increasing number of school districts nationwide consider cutting transportation service due to budget constraints.
Michael Gottfried, an associate professor in the Gervitz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, analyzed a nationally representative sample of 14,370 kindergarten students taken from a previous U.S. Department of Education early childhood longitutidinal study conducted on the 2010-2011 class. He extrapolated that those riding the school bus were less likely to be chronically absent (12 percent), defined by missing more than 10 days, by the spring of that school year compared to their peers in the same school district who went to school via other modes (14 percent).
Previous research conducted by Gottfried has found that chronic absenteeism of kindergartners correlates to lower test scores in kindergarten as well as later in their academic careers. His research also indicates that high kindergarten absentee rates could also lead to higher rates of grade retention and dropout, more difficulty with social development, greater feeling of alienation, increased alcohol and drug use in young adulthood, and fewer employment prospects.
“Reducing absenteeism in young children is critically important to their futures,” Gottfried said. “Absenteeism in kindergarten has been shown to have short- and long-term links to poor academic performance and future absenteeism.”
While the difference in missed days between kindergarten students who ride the bus to school and those who don’t is relatively small – 5.72 days per bus rider compared to nearly 5.98 days for non-bus riders, Gottfried said his research shows that the cumulative effect of missed instructional days can be much larger. Iincreased kindergarten school busing could reduce the number of U.S. public school kindergarten students who are chronically absent by almost 50,000 students, and it could reduce the number of lost instructional days by 1.04 million nationwide and could positively impact individual classrooms.
“Absenteeism has spillover effects,” he added. “When classmates miss more school, all students in the classroom tend to have lower test scores.”
He also said that his results suggest that school bus services help to establish daily routines for the students as well as their families.
Regardless, AERA pointed out that many school districts are reducing bus routes, increasing walk distances, cutting bus stops or eliminating the service altogether, a latter example being Chicago Public Schools.
“The country is facing a school absence epidemic at the same that many school districts are considering cutting or restricting bus services,” said Gottfried. “These findings should give school leaders pause before they limit the resources on which families rely to ensure their children attend school every day.
Gottfried also commented that “it is especially troubling” that many of the school bus service reductions are occurring in low-income areas where students “tend to have disproportionately higher absence rates.”
AERA said approximately 30 percent of the students analyzed in the study commuted to school by bus, while 50 percent were driven by parents. Another 2 percent were driven by other relatives or other adults, and about 8 percent walked to school. Other commuting forms were available, such as biking, but AERA said those made up very small proportions of the sample.
The Stuart Foundation, a nonprofit committed to furthering public education and school preparedness that was first started in 1937 by Carnation founder E.A. Stuart, funded Gottfied’s study.