A Necessary Element of Education ‘Reform’: Getting Students to Show Up

Before one worries about how teachers are performing, it would seem that getting children to attend school regularly would be an important first step, which is a reason one Floridian teacher opposed teacher student testing:

When Florida proposed strict accountability measures, teachers, parents and administrators pushed back. They argued that the proposed system — basing renewal of teacher contracts and at least half their raises on how well students did on standardized tests — would hold them responsible for factors in students’ lives beyond their control.
“I am not a puppet master; I can’t pull strings and make them perform,” said Amy Horr, a second-grade teacher in the Miami-Dade School District who attended a rally on Monday. “I can’t even make them come to school.”

In a recent Michigan study designed to look at the effects of environment pollution on student performance, the most important effect on student performance was poverty. But the second most importance factor was regular school attendance–just getting kids into the classroom.

Which brings us to this recent Boston Globe story:

As part of a concerted effort to reverse years of dismal academic achievement, the South End school is cracking down this year on chronic absenteeism, a largely silent epidemic that afflicts many elementary schools nationwide and rarely is addressed, if it all, with the same gusto employed by high schools.

The Blackstone staff has been closely scrutinizing absences among its 600 students and holding competitions among the homerooms for the best monthly attendance record. A dozen City Year volunteers pitch in, keeping tabs on about 150 students with high absenteeism and calling home when they do not show up.
The Blackstone managed to squeak out a small victory on this rainy morning, when absenteeism tends to spike. Some 93 percent of students showed up, slightly lower than the overall attendance rate for the year, but notably higher than last year’s rate of 91.2 percent.
“Kids need to be here,” said Allyson Hart, director of student success at the school, who is heading up the attendance initiative. “Learning how to read is their golden ticket.”

And absenteeism has a negative effect:

The stronger emphasis on attendance reflects research showing that chronically absent students in elementary schools tend to do worse in class than those students who show up consistently. The findings are raising questions about whether absentee students are more likely to drop out as teenagers….

“In places where absentee rates are so high . . . teachers have to keep reteaching things every day,” said Kim Nauer, one of the report’s authors and education project director for The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, a research institute. “This is where the achievement gap accelerates.”

And as always, poverty and its associated problems enter the discussion:

Elementary school students are absent for a variety of reasons. Aside from illness, students may miss school because of bullying, homelessness, or domestic abuse or because they missed their bus and have no alternative transportation, educators say.
Some researchers say schools should even scrutinize absences due to illness because those instances could illuminate a lack of access to health care and schools could help connect parents with services.

We could follow the data and fund programs that get kids to school, maybe even go old school and have truancy officers.

Or we could bust teacher unions, because it’s the teachers’ fault they’re not teaching students who aren’t there. Or something.

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3 Responses to A Necessary Element of Education ‘Reform’: Getting Students to Show Up

  1. sciliz – 5 things: *Grad student in molecular medicine *love science *snarky sense of humor *passionate about politics *obsessed with lizards
    becca says:

    First, let me point out that I recognize I’m not normal, and that I’m perfectly willing to accept that 99%+ of kid’s absences have nothing to do with the quality of the teacher. Still, this quote is pretty emblematic of a problem: “kids need to be here. Learning how to read is their golden ticket.”
    Don’t you see what’s wrong here? Why on earth would kids *want* to go to school there if they already know how to read? Particularly if they are being yelled at for reading in school?
    Also, the bullying issues are not entirely irrelevant to ‘teacher quality’. When bullying occurs in the classroom and the teacher does nothing to stop it, there’s a problem. It’s not going to be solved by union busting (quite the contrary), but attendance issues can be a *sign* that teaching quality (with respect to either pure pedagogy or classroom management) is poor.

  2. stripey_cat says:

    One reason not on the list that I’d add is caring responsibilities. If the babysitter for the preschooler falls through, or Mum is sick, an eight-year-old can usefully stay home to look after them. Yes, this is illegal. Yes, it happens!
    Also, if the parents are just too damn busy to make sure the kids are ready for school in the morning, kids will try to skip off. If your job starts before your kid has to catch the bus, good luck trying to make sure they actually go to school.

  3. Jeffrey says:

    Obviously all efforts to improve education are useless. I’m a little surprised that regular attendance plays such a big role in determining academic success. I figured that just showing up doesn’t necessarily mean you care, so you might not learn anything if you just show up. But I guess you must care a little about what you are learning if you bother to show up in the first place, so motivation to learn is probably tied to attendance. Maybe Woody Allen was on to something when he said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

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