Is Combating “Chronic Absenteeism” Such a Great Idea?

Ninety-two percent of Virginia’s public schools are meeting the state Board of Education’s expectations for achievement on the Standards of Learning exams, thus winning them “accredited” status for the 2019-20 school year, the Virginia Department of Education reported today.

“This is the second year that schools have been evaluated under the 2017 Board of Education-approved accreditation standards, and this new system for measuring the progress and needs of schools is doing exactly what it was designed to do,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. “These latest ratings will help VDOE target its efforts toward increasing student literacy and furthering progress toward eliminating achievement gaps in the schools that are most in need of the department’s support and expertise.”

The new system creates a new category, “accredited with conditions,” that allows previously poorly performing schools to avoid facing sanctions. Ironically, while this system is “doing exactly what it was designed to do,” according to Lane, overall SOL scores statewide declined in the 2018-19 school year, and the “achievement gap” between Asians and whites on the one hand and Hispanics and blacks on the other showed no sign of improvement.

As one sign of supposed progress, Lane cited the fact that the number of schools meeting the state board’s goal for reducing chronic absenteeism by 4% — from 1,600 schools to 1,663. “Last year’s ratings compelled school divisions to focus on the need to reduce chronic absenteeism,”he said, “and their success in improving student attendance is reflected in the ratings for 2019-2020.”

Question: Could there be a direct link between the success in improving attendance (reducing chronic absenteeism) and eroding test scores?

I understand the logic behind reducing absenteeism. If a student is skipping school, he or she is not attending classes. If students are skipping classes, they probably aren’t doing their homework either. Indeed, the odds are good that they’re not learning anything — nothing related to their academic subjects at least. Therefore, if school officials can round up truants and stick them back in the class, maybe they can learn more. And if truants learn more, maybe they can pass their SOLs and eventually graduate from high school.

But there’s another possibility. What if the kids who play hooky are the kids learning the least from class — possibly because they have been socially promoted and have reached the point where they don’t understand the material, they’re really bored, and they resent being there? What if these very same kids are disproportionately likely to be disruptive in class? Is it possible that the policy of forcing these kids into school contributes to a poor learning environment for the kids who do want to be there?

I doubt that anyone has answers to these questions, because I have seen no evidence that anyone at VDOE is asking the questions in the first place. But here’s what VDOE could do: It could separate, statistically speaking, the chronically absentee kids from the other kids, and it could compare their SOL pass rates with those of kids who regularly attend. That way we could whether rounding them up and shipping them to school actually has a beneficial effect on them.

VDOE also could see if there is a significant overlap between chronically absentee kids and those who create discipline problems in school. We could evaluate whether the effort expended in rounding them up and shipping them to school has a detrimental effect on other students.

It would be useful to know the answers to both sets of questions.

In an ideal world, we would like to see every child graduate from high school. But in the real world we live in, we need to ask whether that is, in fact, an appropriate goal. Might not some kids be better off finding an entry-level job and learning how to conform to a workplace culture than slouching around school and learning nothing? Might not the expectation that every kid must graduate from high school reflect a white, elitist cultural bias at odds with the values of non-white groups, Hispanics in particular, who believe that teenagers should work and contribute income to the family?

I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s important to challenge the conventional wisdom, especially when the ruling K-12 educational dogma is visibly failing.

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15 responses to “Is Combating “Chronic Absenteeism” Such a Great Idea?

  1. I don’t think it is fair to say that The cultural value of Hispanics, or other nonwhites, is to have kids work to support families rather than go to school. That is a result of poverty rather a cultural value. In rural Virginia where I grew up, it was not unusual for kids to quit school to work to help the family, especially those on farms. In fact, that was the case with my father-in-law.

  2. Jim. You are tongue in cheek, right? Of course reducing absenteeism is an absolute necessity. You are ready to just write off these teenagers? Seems like you are. Failure at this point in their lives really skews the odds down the road, sets bad habits that last. Expect success, demand success, and you get more success.

    You and I were writing at the same time, Dick, but my experience has been that people who didn’t at least finish high school regretted it, and the days when a non HS grad could get a factory job or expect a military career are over. It is far more necessary today than two generations back. Today’s farmers have graduate degrees.

    • I agree with all that you said, Steve. Although he was a successful farmer and land investor, my father-in-law regretted that he did not finish high school.

  3. Chronic absenteeism happens at elementary schools also – and yes, I know this is a shock but white kids are also involved!

    The proposed solution does not work in elementary schools. What would you do about that?

    In High School – I have no doubt that those that are chronically absent are also probably involved in discipline actions but again – I do not see this in a racial context. We have the same problem in rural schools with mostly white kids.

    Kids in high school that failed their reading, writing and math SOLs are not able to learn the subjects and they know they are in big trouble because remedial help stigmatizes them as “stupid” and so they are often not interested.

    Many of these kids ARE able to learn if they do get the right kind of help and abandoning them at this stage of their lives basically consigns them to the same economically-distressed fate as their uneducated parents, and then they will have kids and the cycle goes on.

    And the thing is, WE – pay for it – not just the schools but we foot the bill for a lifetime of “assistance” ranging from TANF to MedicAid to food stamps and housing vouchers.

    Those who want advocate walking away – admit they have “no answers” but we do not have that luxury… we have to keep at it and though we will never save all of them – every one that we do – is worth it – not only morally but fiscally for taxpayers.

    It’s funny – we spend billions of dollars on roads, and we still have congestion, and we spend billions of dollars on crime – and we still have crime but in neither case do we advocate either as “failures” of government/taxpayer spending. But we do when it comes to trying to educate some kids who fail and are behavior problems and even worse we characterize in racial terms and not socioeconomic terms.

  4. Interesting points.

  5. I hear people express shock and dismay at my post… but no one is addressing the questions I asked.

    (1) If truants have to be dragged back into school, how likely are they to graduate from high school, and how likely are the to have learned anything while there?

    (2) Are truants more likely to disrupt classes (and the education of others) than non-truants?

    (3) Is there a better educational pathway for these kids?

    To repeat, I’m not pre-supposing the answers, and I’m not advocating any particular course of action — other than to collect more data and gain more insight into what is occurring in our schools.

    • I would pair 1 and 3 and say, sure, chronic absenteeism could be a reason to try a different approach, or at least some targeted attention and help. I suspect the answer to 2 is no but any such behavior needs to be dealt with. There is, as we have discussed, a long-standing recognition that problems outside the school have much to do with, whether trauma or neglect. There is a change in approach, from “what is wrong with this kid” to “what has happened to this kid.” Butcher hasn’t jumped in, but I think his point is that there are no longer consequences for the parent or responsible adult, and there must be, especially in the younger grades. I do share the opinion that we pay now or pay later, so let’s not give up on this.

      And problems inside the school can be a factor, I bet – bullying, boredom, and a feeling of “what’s the point?” I’m not a school counselor, but I’d like to hear from them. It very well can be a sign of a failing school.

      • Now we’re getting somewhere. We need to change the approach. Simply dragging a kid back to school does not necessarily help the kid. To the contrary, if the kid were old enough to be employed, the policy deprive him/her of the opportunity to learn something on the job.

        • If we simply abandon efforts to educate these kids and basically “invite” them to “explore” opportunities in the workplace – are we abandoning them? Why don’t we make that a policy for ALL high school kids? just let them go “explore opportunities” rather than go to school when they hate it?

          I just think to be honest – that’s just doubletalk myself… it’s code for “get out – we don’t want your behavior problems”.

      • re: ” … a feeling of “what’s the point?”

        yes.. by the time you get to high school – if you have not mastered reading and writing – you cannot learn – at least you cannot learn at the academic levels expected to learn from course materials.

        remember the elementary school adage: ” learn to read so you can read to learn later”

        If a kid is not successful at that stage – the follow on is problematic.

        WE DO have programs like GED and other remedial programs – it’s not like we do not. What those programs are and how successful they are (or not) need to also be part of the conversation.

        Many a kid who was a “problem” in high school – grew up – both behaviorally and academically – for some of them time is what it takes but if the opportunities are there later on – a good number will take advantage of them. The armed services used to be a legitimate path – and as some might know – a huge percentage of law enforcement officers are, in fact, retired military.

        I just don’t care for the tenor of the arguments that blames the kids and seems to blame the race… that kind of talk is not useful.

    • Jim – when you use phrases like “dragged back” you ARE presupposing!

      On your question 2 – if there is no data on that and you continue to ask it – is it a more rhetorical question than a serious one? There may even be some studies on the subject but I’d prefer to see them done by folks without an agenda.

      The 3rd question should START with a listing of the current educational alternatives that already exist.

      You are correct, you do not outright call for abandonment but in spirit and word – you essentially do call for that because you appear to state it as a problem and claim there are no good solutions…

      Finally – you continue to make this about race which in my mind – totally undercuts your premises and points. ” Might not the expectation that every kid must graduate from high school reflect a white, elitist cultural bias at odds with the values of non-white groups”

      why do you do this over and over guy? it just totally pollutes the issues.

      absenteeism is NOT about race – and to make it about race is just wrong.

      • You’re right, I did make this post about race. But I wasn’t pointing the finger at blacks and Hispanics. I was pointing the finger at elitist white values being imposed upon other groups for whom those values may not be appropriate.

        • No… I’m not buying that… the “elitist” comment was NOT about whites… when you say “values” you are making a distinction with regard to race… schools do not promote “elitist white values”.

          so what does that phrase really mean?

          Public education is about educating ALL cultures – that’s the basic premise of public education. If our system has gravitated to cater to one culture at the expense of others – we do not invite the others to go “explore opportunities in the workplace”!

  6. Posted on behalf of John Butcher:

    Ah, but for sure they are better off w/o counting those truants.

    To start, the kid is not chronically absent until gone for >10%. And they count only full day absences. The wary kids report for home room and then depart. (Recall the stabbing of and by TJ students a few years ago: Both the stabber and stabbee had cut out after home room.)

    Then the standard:

    Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year, regardless of reason. Students receiving homebound and home-based instruction are excluded from the calculation. Performance on this indicator is rated as follows:

    • Level One — Schools with a current year or three-year average overall absenteeism rate of no more than 15 percent (that is, no more than 15 percent of the students missing 10 percent of the school year), or schools that were at Level Two the prior year and decrease the rate by ten percent or more from the prior year.

    • Level Two — Schools not meeting Level-One performance with a current year or three-year average rate of no more than 25 percent, or schools that were at Level Three the prior year and decrease the rate by 10 percent or more from the prior year. A school shall not receive a Level- Two rating for more than four consecutive years.

    These are kids you don’t want in your school and VBOE encourages getting rid of them.

    • re: ” These are kids you don’t want in your school and VBOE encourages getting rid of them.”

      How does VBOE encourage getting rid of them?

      do you know what it means when you say “get rid of them”?

      You’re basically saying that they will become dependent on taxpayers for the rest of their lives – and that’s actually a better outcome than falling into criminal behaviors.

      You articulated the standards for absenteeism. I doubt seriously that VDOT advocates getting rid of them VICE diverting them into programs more suitable for their needs – which do exist and to this point have never seen those alternative programs articulated in any serious way in this blog – both their existence and their role to continue to educate them and that includes GED programs when those kids realize they need to come back and get more education.

      Kids – teens – do not have the benefit of 50 years of “wisdom” – they still are learning about life, yet we have older and wiser who want to condemn them and abandon them… as some sort of misguided punishment for bad behavior.

      Some folks will ask – HOW did those problem teens get to high school without knowing how to read and write in the first place? Who do you blame that on? Oh wait.. bad schools, bad teachers and bad parents, right?

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