Is Reduced Truancy a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

In purportedly good news for the Richmond Public School system, chronic absenteeism is on the decline. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Fourteen percent of city school students have missed at least 10 percent of the school year, as of the beginning of the month. Last year, 16 percent of students were chronically absent. That means about 600 fewer students are chronically absent this year compared with last.

“Even one chronically absent student is one too many,” said Superintendent Jason Kamras. “But we’re heading in the right direction.”

Absenteeism is one of the measures adopted by the Virginia Department of Education to evaluate schools for purposes of accreditation. In VDOE data released earlier this fall, more than one in four schools received poor ratings for their attendance.

The reason I say that this is “purportedly” good news for Richmond city schools is that I am not persuaded that rounding up absentee kids and putting them back in school does anything to (a) increase their learning, or (b) help the learning of their classmates. Compelling a kid to park his (or her) carcass in a school building is no guarantee that they won’t skip class and just hang out, or, if they do enter the classroom, that they won’t disrupt the proceedings out of boredom or resentment for having been forced to be there.

While it makes educational bureaucrats delighted to see reduced absenteeism, someone might want to ask teachers how happy they are to have chronic school-skippers back in the classroom.

There are ways to track the effects of bringing truants back into school. Schools maintain records on disciplinary infractions. One might predict an increase in disciplinary infractions and disciplinary actions as a result of schools’ “success” in reducing absenteeism. Of course, in the real world we live in, Richmond Public Schools have adopted a therapeutic approach to dealing with disruptive students. Under tremendous pressure to reduce the number of disciplinary actions, teachers and principles may not report infractions that they would have in the past. So, there is no guarantee that increased misbehavior, if it occurs, will show up in the statistics.

Here’s what will show up in the statistics. Teachers will burn out more quickly, and many will quit schools where disciplinary issues are the worst. This will be reflected in a higher rate of churn. While schools don’t publish teacher turnover as a metric, they do publish numbers on district-wide teacher shortfalls. As discipline deteriorates, we might expect shortfalls to intensify.

Another potential effect will be deteriorating classroom conditions. Students who want to learn are deprived of instructional time as teachers devote more attention to troublemakers. If students learn less, they will score worse in standardized tests.

I may be totally wrong. Reducing absenteeism may lead to felicitous educational outcomes for everyone. But there will be no way to tell if I’m right or wrong because schools aren’t performing the requisite analysis to find out. Until such analysis is made available, Richmond schools are acting in blind faith that they’re doing more good than harm.

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5 responses to “Is Reduced Truancy a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    What would be your alternative? Turn them loose on the streets so the cops can round them up and send to prison?


    I’m not advocating that we keep them in school to avoid this outcome but on the other hand – why do you put it on the schools to show it does not cause harm to them without really addressing the bigger picture?

    SOME FORM of education even if in an alternative school is far preferable that having them on the streets.

    That’s actually a real option that is in place in many school districts.

    Yet we continue to hammer the schools over metrics that we are “suspicious” of.

    Why not give the schools some support for the job they do have – and advocate for solutions rather than impugn them for not solving a problem that is dang near to solve but is their responsibility?

    Hammering on the schools over and over on a wide variety of things from SOLs to discipline to absenteeism just seems to be not fair and not useful.

    We DO very much have kids who are products of generational poverty – no question about it – but we won’t fix it by just hammering the schools.

    1. The first step toward devising an intelligent educational policy is to understand what is actually occurring. Policies based on ideology and fantasy cannot work. Achieving an understanding grounded in reality is a huge chore, however. I’m sorry if I haven’t gone the next step to say what needs to be done. I can make suggestions — schools should provide more vocational training, for instance — but there isn’t much point until we actually know what is going on.

      One possible approach — and I stress possible is that we acknowledge that the idea that everyone should graduate from high school may not be feasible or desirable. Perhaps some kids should drop out from schools where they’re learning nothing and disrupting others, and start getting some on-the-job training in the workplace instead.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: ” Policies based on ideology and fantasy cannot work”

        yup that goes for BOTH sides!!!

        re: ” I’m sorry if I haven’t gone the next step to say what needs to be done”

        Naw. If you are SERIOUS and actually want to do more than just hammer – then you offer MORE than “suggestions”. You cite solutions that you support yourself or ones that work elsewhere.

        Otherwise, what the real point of the criticism?

        Turning disruptive kids loose on the streets is not a solution, yet that’s what it sounds like when one asks if they should be allowed to stay in school.

        geeze… step up… this whacking on doesn’t work… we got lots and lots of folks who can cite lots and lots of “failures” and they do… but what’s the point? That govt sucks and we suck?

        We got VDOT and we got congestion. We got police and we got crime. And yes we got disruptive kids in school.. but we don’t condemn it as a “failure”. It is what it is… do we just give up on VDOT dealing with congestion cuz they have “failed”? Should we give up on storm water facilities because we still got CRAP in the Bay? Do we shut down METRO because they have “failed”?

        There’s something about Conservatives these days that is not wonderful.

      2. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Golly, Jim – why stop there? Let’s weed them out of the schools after middle school! Or select the third graders who can make and those who cannot, and get the others right into job training or a correctional facility! Your argument, mirrored in the later post about the some bull-crap economic cost estimate of being around one disruptive kid (but you didn’t link the study), is deeply disturbing and seems to reflect a strong disagreement with a major social goal.

        As someone who joined in the beating when the earlier Richmond truancy statistics were revealed, I consider the announcement of improved attendance good news, especially if the trend is maintained and continues to improve. It is also proof that only things which are measured get done.

        1. The study resides behind a pay wall, so there is no link. But upon what authority — other than the fact that you don’t like its implications — do you proclaim it to be “bull crap”?

          I don’t accept your why-stop-there argument. “Let’s weed them out of the schools after middle school! Or select the third graders who can make [it] and those who cannot, and get the others right into job training or a correctional facility!” That’s hyperbole, not a logical argument. You’re extrapolating my views to an absurd position.

          I don’t have the answer. But, as I have admonished Larry, I believe we must start with reality, not what we wish to be true, and work from there. Deny reality, and you can accomplish nothing good.

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