The US Department of Education recently posted a website on chronic absenteeism that highlights data from its 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection. The headline is that about 13% of all students were “chronically absent”—missing at least 15 days (or 3 weeks) of school during the school year. That’s approximately 6 million students. Among high school students, nearly 1 in 5 are chronically absent. And unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, students of color are more likely to be absent than white students.
As Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up. Students can’t access curriculum, keep up with classroom activities, have their questions answered, take the tests (much less do well on them) if they aren’t at school. While “flipped classrooms” and online learning can close some of the gap, students need to know how their teachers are explaining material and what the expectations are for classes.
Chronic absenteeism is a conundrum for educators. They can’t teach students, and don’t want to be held accountable for them, if their students aren’t at school. It takes extra effort, often accompanied with frustration, if they feel the need to “catch-up” students. And short of reporting parents for neglect in the most extreme cases, schools can only encourage, cajole, and give some tips to parents. If parents or caregivers aren’t available, don’t know how to manage their children, are experiencing other stressors or greater challenges, schools aren’t left with many options.
However, what the data doesn’t show, and what would be critically important for us to know, is when absences occur. If we knew that data, we might develop more informed strategies both inside and outside the school. I have an educated hypothesis, at least for middle and high school students: they are more likely to be chronically absent during 2nd and 4th quarters of the school year. Why?
Students want to be in school as long as they see a chance for success. At the beginning of the year, they are full of hope: that classes will be interesting, they will be respected, they will learn, they will succeed. Teachers know this; many introduce their classes by giving previews of the year and giving them keys for how to succeed in the class. Some even announce, “All of you are starting out with A’s” to convey the teacher’s assumption that they will succeed. Teachers know how important hope is to students, particularly those who have struggled in school.
But by the second half of a semester, something has changed for struggling students: there’s less hope. In part that’s because learning is hard: success requires work, and those who have gaps in their learning have the additional burden of catching up. But teachers take hope away without intending to. There’s a point in the semester when it becomes mathematically impossible for a student to earn a passing grade. If they have a low percentage at the quarter, whether it be from missing work, failed tests, or anything else, they can’t pass unless they score nearly perfectly for the entire rest of the semester. Because most teachers grade cumulatively, and average grades, if a student has a poor first quarter, there is no mathematical chance for redemption, even if the student does actually learn the material and show proficiency. Even when it’s mathematically possible to pass, using a grading method that averages performance is inaccurate (Do we evaluate an actor’s performance by averaging his first day of dress rehearsals and his final performance? Of course not.). More profoundly, it sends a message to students that when holes are dug, they might be impossible to get out of. While some might suggest this is a good life lesson, it undermines the learning process, and discourages students from continuing to try. It gives them a reason to give up. The student’s decision to stop coming to class when it’s unlikely she’ll pass is a rational one: why expend effort when there’s no possibility of reward?
We want to do everything within our control to make students want to come to our class, to reduce student absences if we can help. In addition to creating innovate and engaging lessons, to get students to continue to attend our classes must adjust our grading system so we never destroy the possibility of success.