Blog: The Educated Reporter

Student Absenteeism: Turning More Eyes Toward Empty Desks

There’s a truism in education circles: Kids can’t learn if they’re not in class. But the problem of absenteeism – particularly when it’s chronic – is one that experts say is too often missing from the debate over how to boost student achievement and turn around struggling schools.

To be sure, educators from Florida to Hawaii know there’s a problem, and you should expect to see more of a focus on the issue as the new academic year gets underway (September is Attendance Awareness Month). But solving it will take more than just adding truancy officers or imposing fines on parents who let their kids skip.

Calling his district’s absentee rate “atrocious,” Pasco (Fla.) Superintendent Kurt Browning vowed that “If I have to, I will come and knock on every door of every student letting them know they have to attend,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

In Pasco,  about one out of every 10 of students missed at least 21 days of instruction in the 2011-12 academic year. Researchers define a habitual truancy as missing at least 10 percent of the instructional days, or 18 days in an average 180-day academic calendar.

In Hawaii, the problem is even more pervasive – nearly two out of every 10 students was identified as chronically absent. Here’s more on the state’s shifting approach to the problem from the Honolulu Civil Beat:

Hawaii’s focus on chronic absenteeism is reflective of a larger trend away from average daily attendance as the sole elementary-level school readiness measure — a method that experts say can actually end up masking the real problems.

“One that we’ve found is that average daily attendance can sometimes obscure what are patterns of absence by specific students,” said David Moyer, a strategic data fellow at the DOE, because “you can also have big pockets of students who’ve missed a big chunk of school.”

Last year Connecticut’s State Board of Education set a new definition for an “excused” absence from class, and, as reported by the Connecticut Mirror, “Disneyland didn’t make the cut.” While there’s some humor to the anecdote, it highlights the push-pull relationship many educators say they have with a significant factor in student absenteeism: the families.

Researchers have found that chronic absenteeism even in the younger grades can put students on a downward academic spiral that can be difficult to reverse. But some parents don’t see it as a serious problem until their kids are at risk of dropping out. In a 2008 report, the National Center on Children in Poverty said that one out of every 10 students in kindergarten and first grade were chronically absent, missing nearly a month of school over the course of an academic year. A 2011 study by Attendance Works, a national advocacy group, suggested that missing school in early childhood can take a heavy toll on a student’s long-term academic performance. How heavy a toll? Students who had been chronically absent kindergarteners and first graders scored significantly below their peers who had better attendance: By the time they were tested in third grade, the gap was 60 points in reading and 100 points in mathematics.

So what’s the answer? We know older students say they skip school because they’re bored or frustrated after falling behind. Educators are struggling to find ways to make the learning experience more meaningful and improve student motivation. In the meantime, more than 35 national organizations have signed on to sponsor activities this month as part of Attendance Work’s unprecedented campaign to raise awareness, and help schools, students and families address the underlying issues behind chronic absenteeism. (You can find the events happening in your local community with this handy interactive map.)

Next week, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research will publish a study examining preschool attendance data in the Windy City, and how absenteeism can have long-term effects on student learning. I’ll be chatting with Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, on Tuesday, Sept. 3. about those findings, as well as her organization’s new national campaign. You are welcome to join the conversation at 1 p.m. EDT.