Students Won’t Perform Well If They’re Not in Class

I’ve noted before that, after poverty, the second most important factor in student performance is student absenteeism (what used to be called truancy). You can’t blame teachers (or their unions) if the students aren’t attending regularly.

A recent NY Times article describes a Johns Hopkins report detailing the extent of truancy (boldface mine):

Up to 15 percent of American children are chronically absent from school, missing at least one day in 10 and doing long-term harm to their academic progress, according to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

They argue that policy makers tend to look at absenteeism in the wrong way, requiring districts and states to measure average daily attendance rates, but — with the exception of a few states — not focusing on the relatively small number of students who account for most absences. They found that some schools report an average of more than 90 percent daily attendance, masking the fact that 40 percent of their students are chronically missing….

Many studies have linked frequent absence to low academic achievement and high dropout rates; recent studies of children in New York, Chicago and other cities suggest that attendance may predict a student’s academic progress as effectively as test scores do. Poor children —who stand to benefit most from attending school — are also more likely to miss school….

While truancy — unexcused absences — and illness play a part, the researchers said the primary problem is absences that are optional but excused with a parent’s permission.

“There are so many efforts at school reform, but what people overlook is that none of them work if the kids don’t show up,” said Marie Groark, executive director of the Get Schooled Foundation, a nonprofit group that commissioned the Johns Hopkins study.

She said she became aware of the issue while teaching at a public high school in the Bronx. “There might have been 35 kids theoretically in my class,” she said, “but on any given day, only 20, 25 were there, and it wasn’t the same 20 or 25 from one day to the next, so we were always playing catch-up.”

I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame parents–or, as often the case, a parent: these families suffer from housing instability, employment instability, and chronic illnesses that can flare up. Translated into English, a family that is scrambling for shelter, is desperately trying to keep or find a job so they can buy food, and suddenly has to deal with another asthma attack (which also makes keeping that job all the harder) will have kids who don’t show up all the time.

That being said, there are programs that do work:

What all these efforts have in common are a) close, often weekly, measurement and tracking of absenteeism, b) the development of a diagnostic capacity to understand why students are missing school, c) a problem-solving capacity to help address those reasons, d) building and sustaining relationships with the students who are experiencing absenteeism, and often their families, e) the development of a multi-sector and community response that often involves a second shift of adults in the schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism to meet the scale of the challenge, f) efforts to recognize and reward good attendance, and g) a commitment to learn what works, and then to replicate and expand effective programs to modify what is not working.

The only thing I would add is that we need truancy officers. Not to punish parents, as lower income parents get hammered enough as it is, but to actually find the students, confront them, and get them back in school.

No curriculum or pedagogy works if students, especially those who need it the most, aren’t exposed to it in class.

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2 Responses to Students Won’t Perform Well If They’re Not in Class

  1. joemac53 says:

    Why does this have to have a study? Keerist, doesn’t anyone ever talk to teachers?

  2. joemac53 says:

    That wasn’t a helpful comment. Many years ago when Prop 2 1/2 first became law, many alternative ed programs were cut. That doesn’t mean that kids who needed these programs ceased to exist. A few of my colleagues and I volunteered to take the most at-risk kids and work with them in a out of school setting (some lobster-boat therapy was included). The most important little detail was this: I would drive the bus to get the kids in the morning, right to their door. I am a very persuasive guy, and even a little threatening at times. Showing up is very important.
    But it was not to be. “Who’s going to take your place, Joe?” Too many dominoes would have fallen. Those kids still exist 30 years later, and they are not scoring well.

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