Arne Duncan, left, and his successor as education secretary, John King, with President Obama at the White House. Duncan announced an initiative to address poor attendance at public schools. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced that it will begin publishing data on chronic absenteeism rates at schools nationwide, part of a campaign meant to highlight and address the problem of poor attendance.

A growing body of research has shown that children who miss more than 10 percent of the school year — about 18 days in most districts — are more likely to struggle academically and drop out. An estimated 5 million to
7.5 million children are chronically absent each year, but many school districts and reform strategies have failed to tackle the issue.

The White House wants to help change that with the “Every Student, Every Day” campaign to help districts identify which children are missing school too often and figure out what kind of help those children need.

“Great teachers matter, great principals matter, but they can’t work their magic if our babies aren’t in school,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at an event announcing the initiative at Patterson Elementary School in the District.

“I really think it is about saving kids’ lives,” Duncan said. “If kids are missing a month of school, or two months or three months, there is nothing positive that can come of that.”

Joining Duncan in announcing the effort were Julián Castro, secretary of housing and urban development; Broderick D. Johnson, who heads President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative; and John King Jr., who will serve as education secretary when Duncan steps down in December.

A small group of education advocates and researchers have been beating the drum about chronic absenteeism for years, gathering evidence that attendance is directly linked to achievement and comprehensive community efforts — involving schools, nonprofit groups, social workers and community health organizations — can yield substantial improvements in school attendance.

Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, a key researcher in the field, said he thinks that the administration’s decision to begin publishing absenteeism figures in 2016 will force superintendents and principals to begin focusing on a problem they have long ignored. “That’s huge, actually,” he said. “That’s going to be a lightning bolt.”

Schools are testing an array of techniques to help kids learn, Balfanz said, but many of their efforts never have a chance because so many kids are not in their seats. “It’s the unpulled lever of school reform,” he said.

School districts are often required to report their average daily attendance, but a school can appear to be doing well on that measurement even if many children are repeatedly missing class.

Some districts also track truancy, but that overlooks students who are racking up excused absences.

“Every day a child is in school matters, and ultimately will have a bearing on their academic success,” said Victorie Thomas, principal of Patterson Elementary, which has improved attendance as D.C. Public Schools has made a priority of addressing absenteeism.

Over the past two years, the school district’s daily attendance is up more than 3 percent, which means 2,000 more children are in school each day, said Chief of Schools John Davis.