Over the years, there has been an on-going discussion among teachers about the impact of student absence on student achievement, especially regarding learning and test scores, and ultimately the effects of student absence on drop out rates and graduation rates in our high schools. Teachers are frustrated and generally stymied by this ever-present predicament: poor student attendance. Teachers face the daily problem of trying to help absent students catch up and stay caught up with the rest of the class. It is a real and significant challenge for us in meeting our instructional goals and in conducting a meaningful and cohesive program for all students.
Who is paying attention to this relatively silent force? It has been my experience that, apart from teachers and administrators, few people seem to recognize the reality and severity of the problem. Even fewer are empowered to discuss the issue in an effective manner in order to design changes in policy, practice, and even in state regulations.
Schools have attendance officers and attendance goals. Districts have elaborate programs to track attendance, to reward good attendance, and to document progress in improving attendance. Districts provide different programs to allow high school students to “stay in school” or to make up missed hours in order to graduate.
Don’t get me wrong—the problem may be acknowledged, and we are doing better at working on the problem. But the root of the problem is not being examined or remedied. We are approaching the problem mostly by treating the symptoms, not the causes or the conditions that lead to excessive absence.
Year after year, students who, by most standards, have shocking attendance histories join 6th grade classes at my school and other middle schools. In any one year, I may have some students who have missed a significant number of days from kindergarten through grade 5. I have occasionally had students who, since kindergarten, have missed ¼ to ½ of some years. About fifteen years ago, I had a student who eventually missed 81 days of 6th grade. In checking her records, I found that she had missed many days of school every year for the six previous years. Starting in kindergarten, she had never attended more than 80% of any one school year. This student also changed schools frequently—we call them school hoppers—attending three different schools in two different districts in third grade.
I have taken some time to review Title 14, Chapter 27 of Delaware Code on school attendance: http://delcode.delaware.gov The language defines school attendance, but seems to do little to delineate a reasonable, workable, enforceable, or successful resolution to this problem. It states what should happen if a student has an excessive number of absences; what it does not do is describe realistic ways to correct the problem. Teachers are not interested in the prosecution of Susie’s mother. Teachers just want Susie to come to school each and every day that she is not ill.
Is it any wonder that these children may experience both academic and behavior difficulties in school? There are a number of general questions which one might ask about excessive absences:
- How many days missed is too many?
- Who should be held accountable for student attendance? How should this function?
- What possible remedies might we create to try to deal with the problem?
- Has anyone anywhere identified effective incentives for students and parents?
- What is the difference between excused absence and unexcused absence? Isn’t a day missed, a day missed? Do we have students with excessive excused absences?
- How does poor attendance correlate with student performance and achievement?
- How does poor attendance correlate with student behavior problems?
- What are the causes of, factors in, or reasons for student absence?
- How many bright and capable students have had their learning and school success impacted by their poor attendance histories? Who is at fault?
- What can schools and districts do to improve this situation? At what cost?
I would like to comment further about the problem. Though not unique, these particular observations are my own—based on 38 years of classroom experience.
- Teachers are encouraged to help absent students make up work that they missed. Some classes are harder to make up than others. In English, a student may be able to read the chapter and complete the written class work. In a science or math class, the student may never again have the opportunity to complete the key lab activity or to experience the problem-solving task and class discussion. In reality, there is no way to make up missed classes. There is much, much more to any hour-long class than just catching up on some written work.
- There are some students who miss school due to suspension for violations of district codes of conduct. I believe that school suspensions are registered as excused absences. Should they be? Is there a difference between some child who misses school and a child who has been put out of school?
- Sometimes, we have students who are suspended from the bus. If the family has no other way to get the child to school, the child may miss 5-10 days in a row. This can be devastating for both the student and the teacher. There is no way to make up that many missed classes.
- Because there is no high school, and few middle schools, in the city of Wilmington, if a city student misses the bus, it may be virtually impossible for him/her to get to a school that is all the way out in the suburbs. This leads to another day out of school.
- How does excessive, repeated, or regular tardiness affect student learning? We have students who are repeatedly late for school. Teachers feel that being significantly late for first period day after day is ultimately the same as being absent from that class. How is excessive tardiness monitored? What can be done to end this pattern?
- In some schools, there may be a related problem with early dismissal. The school day ends at 2:30. If John frequently leaves school at 2:00, he routinely misses a major portion of his last period class. Is this absence monitored and recorded? Are there consequences?
- We have plenty of kids who miss a lot of school. However, they may not be students with behavior problems. There is not always a connection between excessive absence and behavior problems. Some students who miss a great deal of time may actually be quiet, well-behaved, and in some cases, shy and withdrawn students. [Some of the students who present our schools and our teachers with some of the worst disciplinary problems are regular attendees.]
There may actually be a seemingly valid reason behind some of these absences:
(1) The family may be homeless (or nearly homeless).
(2) There may be a need for the student to stay home to care for a sick adult or for younger children.
(3) No adult in the household provides the supervision required to get children up, and fed, and dressed, and on their way to school.
(4) Students occasionally tell us that they could not come to school because they had no clean clothing to wear.
We associate much of this type of absence with poverty. Childhood poverty wreaks havoc on our children and on our schools.
Here are some additional observations about student absence from school:
- Sometimes students’ absences have a pattern: missing Mondays and/or Fridays, or regularly missing 1-2 days per week. One day a week adds up to too many days missed.
- An early attendance problem may be exacerbated in middle school because the school may be farther away from students’ homes than their elementary schools.
- We have students who miss five, ten, or more days of school in order to travel or vacation with their families. We have some students who regularly spend a month or more with distant family members in Puerto Rico, Mexico, China, or India.
- In some cases, an individual student’s unexcused absences are in addition to excused absences, really upping the total number of days missed.
- As stated above, we have, and have had, a number of students who have long histories of excessive absence. What can be done to intervene and change this pattern? We cannot teach them if they are not right there in front of us.
- Teachers and other school personnel have tried to counsel older students (grades 4 & 5 and up) to encourage them to take responsibility on their own for coming to school. Teachers have provided students with alarm clocks and helped them work out plans for getting up, getting dressed, getting breakfast, and getting to the bus on time. Sometimes this works; often it does not.
- Students who are not in school may be unsupervised. They may be getting into trouble at home or in their neighborhoods. They may be away from school without their family’s knowledge or permission.
- Over the years, staff members in various districts from across the state have complained about the problems of student absence. Teachers talk about this all the time. No coordinated, viable plan for dealing with excessive absence seems to exist. It seems to teachers that no one has been able to establish an effective minimum requirement for days in school or to create a long-term, successful plan to encourage school attendance or to deal with excessive absence in a meaningful, productive way. Someone claims that it is district policy. Someone else explains that attendance policies come from the state.
- We want our students in school—what is it going to take to get them there and keep them there?
- In reality, this problem is an adult responsibility. We cannot hold an eleven-year old child responsible for missing day after day of school.
I feel that this issue has lingered long enough. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible. The consequences of excessive absence play out pretty sensationally in our high schools, with unacceptable drop out numbers and disappointingly low graduation rates. Most of these problems do not begin in high school.
I am concerned that much of what we have tried to do so far is not effective or is not good enough. More of the same is probably not going to help. If we all agree that all students can learn, then we need to be sure that they all get the chance to be in school every day that they are well enough to be there.