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“Why Don’t We Do That?” Exploring New Approaches to Improve School Attendance

Sarah Whiting - Rhode Island Department of Education

Waking up early is hard. Engaging chronically absent students is even harder. Sarah Whiting, an Educator Quality Specialist, from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) is hoping to simplify that task and give local principals the tools they need to improve attendance at their schools. Through the Innovation League, Sarah looked into behavioral science approaches to help achieve this goal. She was particularly intrigued by the idea of nudge letters, or reports sent home quarterly to parents whose children are chronically absent. The letter shows graphically where their child’s attendance is compared to their peers. “The Innovation League workshops here have been really helpful,” she says, “because we’ve been able to see where and how other nudge projects have happened and their results.” Now, Sarah is deploying a nudge letter pilot project in East Providence, where a technology allows school leaders to “nudge” parents through text messages to promote school attendance.

“Having new ways to think about the work that we are doing has been helpful,” she explains. “Government does need to be more innovative” and like any other organization, “needs to keep checking itself to see to what extent it is meeting its desired goals.” She felt that the Innovation League was an engaging space to assess RIDE’s recent work and further their mission of ensuring that all Rhode Island students are ready for success in college, careers, and life. Innovation League participants also benefit from hearing diverse perspectives; she highlight the value of her “community of colleagues” and the “variety of speakers” who “all brought something new and interesting to the table.”

With the her League cohort as a starting point, Sarah says she’s not done with innovation in government. “I hope to share some of my learnings… I have been sharing them back with my immediate office but I would like to do more outreach throughout the agency.” She’s already dug deeper into one of the League presentations, attending speaker Elinor Amit’s behavioral science course at Brown University to learn more. “I’m trying to explore the behavioral science piece … It’s proven to work, there’s science behind that, it just seems so obvious: why don’t we do that?” That’s a question that Sarah is excited to keep exploring.