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Lesson 4.8

Absences:
Don't Miss Class!

When kids miss school, it’s usually because…

hero image

It is easy to think of truancy as a law enforcement issue – a problem of willful teenagers. Enforcement of attendance is a common area of cooperation between municipalities and school districts.

But a distressing amount of "truancy" is better thought of as "absenteeism." It involves elementary school children whose parents or caregivers fail to get them to school for all sorts of reasons. Children who miss school can fall behind quickly, and schools are generally not equipped to support family interventions that can make a difference. School is compulsory for children in California beginning in first grade.

Missing school is a warning sign of bigger problems

A growing body of research suggests that early absenteeism is a strong predictor of later problems, including failing to graduate high school. Districts need to address absenteeism early and often. In part, they need to address it for funding reasons: districts don't receive money for students who don't show up to school.

Former California Attorney General Kamala Harris began shining a spotlight on elementary school truancy with an annual report "In School + On Track." It's a trove of hard-to-get information assembled from local data systems. For example, the 2015 report revealed that the annual cost of missed school in California exceeded a billion dollars, just for elementary student absences alone.

4-8-Truancy-in-CA-2012

California's definition of truancy casts a wide net: "a student is truant if he/she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on 3 occasions in a school year." By that measure nearly a million California students were truant by the end of the school year. The statistics regarding "chronic truancy" (absent at least 10% of the school year) are smaller, but concerning: about a quarter of a million California elementary school students miss more than three weeks of school per year. This level of absence from school correlates with all kinds of bad outcomes, including failure to finish high school. According to the Attorney General's office report, 82% of those in prison in America are high school dropouts.

AttendanceWorks infographicThe infographic above, from AttendanceWorks, breaks down the risks of chronic absence from school for young students. (Click for full size to see the impact on reading for kids who miss many days in kindergarten and first grade.)

California's strict attendance rules are a hardship for student organizations and athletic groups. For example, even students that serve on school boards or as advisors in school accreditation teams are technically truant when they miss school to attend meetings during school hours.

Suspended

For older students, sometimes missing school is a result of their behavior. Out of school suspensions and expulsions are a tool that schools use to punish students and maintain order in schools. However, these disciplinary approaches also keep kids from learning, especially those kids whose achievement is of the greatest concern.

Johnny's not in class
a canary in the mind
empty chairs can pass
a silent warning sign

The California Endowment has been a leading voice in creating a movement to find other ways to address student misbehavior. They argue that suspensions are largely counterproductive, and that it is better to "suspend" students in a way that keeps them in a learning environment.

The school finance system in California creates a powerful incentive to keep students in school: it funds school districts on the basis of Average Daily Attendance (ADA). This is also a part of the reason why schools take attendance every day. Districts take this very seriously. Investments that increase school attendance can pay for themselves quickly if they work. For example, effective attendance-management systems enable school office staff to call parents of absent students by lunchtime.

Next Steps

Parents and PTAs can help get kids to school on time. From creating a regular bedtime routine to making sure backpacks are ready to go in the morning, time-proven strategies really work, if parents know about them. Attendance Works provides useful web-based handouts for pre-school, elementary, middle and high school in several languages.

This lesson concludes the Ed100 coverage of the topic of Time as a lever for educational success. This is a good moment to reiterate the organizing framework of Ed100: Education is Students and Teachers spending Time in Places for Learning with the Right Stuff in a System with Resources for Success. So Now What?

The next series of lessons picks up the topic of places for learning, including primers about neighborhood schools, charter schools, and learning beyond the classroom.

Updated July 2017

Review

Regarding attendance, which ONE statement is FALSE:

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm
RELATED to this lesson on the Ed100 blog:
Attendance: A Measure of School Success
Missing just two days of school in a month is a key warning sign for trouble. Yes, there are some things your school can do about it.
https://ed100.org/blog/Attendance-Success
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 2:48 pm
Update on Chronic Absences in California from the California Attorney General...
In School + On Track 2016
"An estimated 210,000 K-5 students in California are chronically absent – missing 10% of the school year – making up 7.3% of elementary school students in the state."
"Chronic absence rates are disproportionately high for certain groups of students and are concentrated in a small number of schools and districts:
• 77% of all chronically absent students are low-income
• The chronic absence rate for African American students (14%) is 2X the rate for all students
• 50% of chronically absent students in our sample attend 20% of schools and 10% of districts; 25% attend 7% of schools and 3% of districts."
"In 2013, just over half of districts surveyed said they tracked student attendance data over time. In 2016, 85% of districts reported that they do."
Find the report here: http://oag.ca.gov/truancy/2016.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 4:14 pm
New Data Illuminates the Extent of Chronic Absenteeism
An inter-active web resource from the US Department of Education takes a close look at which groups of students are more likely to be chronically absent. The data is drawn from nearly every public school in the country and helps us understand who is chronically absent, at what grade levels chronic absenteeism tends to occur, and how chronic absenteeism compares community-by-community and state-by-state.
http://www2.ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html#intro
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 5, 2016 at 1:31 pm
In 2016, California's State Board of Education began requiring collection of statewide data about school attendance. Amazingly, this data had not been collected previously.
Santa Ana Unified School District (one of the CORE districts) has begun experimenting with ways to improve attendance, which is reported on the district's School Quality Improvement Index. (Yep, it's really called the "squee".) The district began operating a Saturday School for chronically absent students to make up for days missed. The curriculum for Saturday School is evolving: the point is to increase the chance that students at risk will decide that school is worth showing up for. Data in the SQII will help to evaluate the program's effectiveness.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2015 at 11:24 am
Attendance and Chronic Absence: LCAP Template
The California Attorney General’s Office has created suggestions for school districts for inclusion in their LCAP's to address attendance and chronic absence issues.
https://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/pdfs/tr/ago_sample_lcap.pdf
user avatar
Stacey W April 6, 2015 at 8:50 pm
I like what my child's elementary school did for addressing student absences. If your child was absent during the month, they were invited to "Saturday school". Kids would participate in enrichment activities or they could bring their homework if they needed assistance. RSVP's were requested. Attending Saturday school erased one of the absent days (for which the school received funding) and the child could receive tutoring. This was especially helpful during the flu season and sometimes students missed quite a few days.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 27, 2015 at 9:06 am
That does sounds like a good plan.
user avatar
aimeef23 April 27, 2015 at 4:09 pm
Our school has the same program. Seems to benefit both the student and the school.
user avatar
JH McConnell October 19, 2015 at 11:25 pm
If these "Saturday school" days were truly for the benefit of the student and not just a way for the school to increase its state funding they would be a good idea. A student out for a week or two because of the flu might need some extra instruction, or not, depending on what the teacher was covering, and how easy the material was for that particular student.
user avatar
cnuptac March 22, 2015 at 6:44 pm
I had no idea if a young child misses school just a few day each year that it would cause them to get behind so much in reading and that by 4th it shows up
user avatar
JH McConnell October 19, 2015 at 11:08 pm
I don't understand your assertion that missing a few days in school would cause a student to fall behind in reading. This unless you are talking about a first grader, which is where reading skills should be acquired. Once the student learns to sound out words, and reads enough to recognize the more common words, everything after that is simply building vocabulary.
user avatar
Rob M April 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm
If a student is not in school he or she can’t learn. And early absenteeism is a strong predictor of failing to graduate high school. Districts need to address absenteeism early and often. This is an area where we can learn from other states by implementing improved student information systems. For example, Texas is in the process of updating its student information to ensure that every teacher and parent can have instant access to their student’s information including recent attendance. Their data system immediately flags students who are having an attendance problem so that the school administration, teacher and parents all know that there is a problem. This collaborative approach leads to shared ownership of the problem, and quicker corrections instead of the problem going unaddressed.
Having the state create incentives for districts to focus energy on increasing attendance is important. At the same time, the state’s finance system will need to focus on more more than just seat time for schools to be able to take advantage of new learning opportunities such as distance learning or self-paced learning. In the end what we care about is how much students learn, not whether they have lots of seat time. This will be a difficult policy balance to retain the important focus on attendance while allowing districts to experiment with alternative methods of instruction.
user avatar
JH McConnell October 19, 2015 at 11:18 pm
I strongly disagree with your assertion that "if a student is not in school he or she can't learn." It is true that if a student is not is school that the school doesn't get paid for that day. A few days off now and again isn't likely to harm the student, except as he or she is punished by the teacher or the school. This especially if the days off are to accompany a parent somewhere on a long weekend.

There is some truth, however, that students who are not going to school may resist going to school because they are not doing well there. In that case not going to school is an indicator of an existing problem, and not the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem may very well be inadequate or ineffective teachers or sub-standard instructional material.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 20, 2015 at 9:58 am
Perhaps "can't" overstates the case, JH. This lesson isn't intended to make a fringe argument that "a few days off" automatically predicts a student's academic doom. The point is that a pattern of missed class tends to be an indicator of something wrong, especially for young students. There is a powerful predictive connection between early absenteeism (parents don't get their child to school) and later problems. Patterns like this are important to address.
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:30 pm
Children get ill at times during the year where they may miss more than three days in a school year. I understand the importance of our children attending school, but this whole section seems unreasonable!
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