An article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/17/AR2010101702366.html?nav=mbot) in the Washington Post examines the problem of absenteeism in public schools. When I saw the headline (“Pr. George’s school officials, advocates tackle chronic absenteeism”), I assumed that the article would cover truancy in high schools – something that I know only too much about as a former high school teacher in Prince George’s County. Sadly, the article discusses absenteeism in elementary schools – something which is disturbing on a number of levels.
I lived with a fifth grade teacher during my time in the classroom, so I’ve heard a bit about elementary students missing school. Obviously, little kids just get sick more often – but that doesn’t explain the chronic absenteeism Nick Anderson covers in this article. Unlike older kids, elementary students probably don’t have as much of a choice about missing school. They might be absent because their moms had to work and couldn’t take them to school. They might be absent because of a chronic health condition that is easily treated but hasn’t been resolved because they haven’t been able to see a doctor. (Health issues play a huge role in student performance throughout the K-12 system.)
Chronic absenteeism makes a big difference in student achievement at any level. In high school, we worry about other reasons for why students miss – are they just not engaged in their learning? Or, to confirm common stereotypes – are they involved in illicit activity that will provide them with more tangible benefits (e.g., money for their family) than an education?
I tracked student attendance while I taught, and I’ve got some pretty incredible numbers to illustrate the problem of absenteeism in high school. During one semester, I taught a total of 54 students. In one grading period, those 54 kids missed a combined total of 543 days of school, for an average number of days absent per student of 10. If all my students had perfect attendance, their total number of days in my class would have been 2430… which means that my students were absent an average of 22% of the time. The highest number of absences for any one student was 34. Seven students missed 20 or more days, and 12 students missed between 10 and 20 days. Only four of my 54 students had perfect attendance.
What can we do to fix this?!
At any level of school, we need to step up the services provided to students. Many lack health insurance, so something relatively minor can become a real hindrance to learning. (For instance, many of my students asked to sit closer to the board because they could not see. Their families didn’t have money for glasses.) School breakfasts and lunches, which are sometimes the sole source of food for kids, are often unappetizing and usually unhealthy. (Many of my students complained of feeling sick after eating, no doubt because of the high levels of fat and sugar in their meals.) And, most important of all, when students start to miss a lot of school, we need to follow up. What’s the cause? Many things can be addressed if we are proactive about it – we can find ways for little kids to get to school if their parents can’t bring them; we can arrange for kids to get a haircut or new clothes so that they don’t feel self-conscious among their peers. At the secondary level, all of these factors combine with a general lack of motivation/disengagement that makes many kids a lot less willing to bother with school. When your family is on the brink of homelessness or hunger, spending a day learning equations doesn’t seem like the best use of your time. It’s hard to motivate kids to come to school when there are so many competing factors and when teenagers have to take on the responsibilities usually delegated to adults.
This issue provides the perfect illustration for why education reform can’t ever be about ONE issue or ONE fix. We need better teachers, we need better tests… but those don’t matter much if kids aren’t in class consistently or if they can’t concentrate while they are because they’re hungry or sick.
There are so many ways for each of us to contribute to a better education for all kids. Donate to a food bank. Take good clothes to Goodwill. Bring your kids’ old books to a community center so that kids who have none at home can work on their literacy skills. Contribute to organizations that provide health services to children and poor families. Become a mentor so that a kid can interact with a strong role model who will encourage him or her to go to school. The possibilities are endless. You can help reverse this rate of absenteeism and help more of our kids to get the education they need to succeed!