An Interview with Marie Groark: Skipping to Nowhere

Aug 30, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Marie, first of all, tell us about your own education, background, experiences and what you are currently doing.

I began my career as a high school social studies teacher in New York City.  My classes in education school didn’t explain how to teach when one of every three students were absent on any given day (and often a different mix of students)!  I went onto work in business, government and higher education, but then had the opportunity to join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and work in the education space again.  There I realized there were so many amazing initiatives and programs aimed at schools, teachers, even administrators.  But few were focused on engaging and motivating students themselves.  When Viacom stepped up and agreed to use their creative assets and media platforms to reach the students themselves through a non-profit called Get Schooled, I jumped at the opportunity.

  1. Now tell us about this recent report on skipping school.

Attendance is an issue we simply don’t talk about enough.  It is the greatest predictor of high school graduation rates and a huge factor in student achievement gains, college readiness levels, etc.  Yet based on a report released by Johns Hopkins last spring (with support from Get Schooled), up to 15% of K-12 students miss a month or more of school.

The question we kept being asked after that report was released is why are students skipping so much school – so we decided to go to the students themselves and ask them.  The findings were even more surprising than we thought they would be.  Most students have no idea of the negative consequences of missing so much school – and most parents have no idea that their children are missing as much school as they are.

  1. Now, some clarification- you talk about “skipping school“ , but are not all students by law supposed to be in school until they are 16? (except for a legitimate legal excuse)?

Yes, students are supposed to be enrolled in school, but not all students attend school every day.  About 30% of middle and high school students in many states and districts miss 18 days or more of school.  That doesn’t even include the students who just decide not to go to a particular class because they don’t want to.

  1. Are the states enforcing the laws currently on the books? Are there “truant officers“ out there or not?

The problem is so large that while truant officers can and do play a role in many districts, they alone cannot solve the problem.  It is only when parents, teachers and frankly companies like Viacom and entertainers like Nicki Minaj (who has been a huge supporter of Get Schooled) step up and encourage students to be in school, explain the implication of missing school, and engage them and inspire them to take control of their education that we can actually address this problem.

  1. I know that some schools turn over habitually truant kids and their parents to the local district attorney. Does this happen often?

I can’t speak to how frequently this happens in districts across the country – but again the problem of missing school crosses all demographic lines – rural, suburban and urban kids are skipping school and we all pay a price – low high school graduation rates, poor college readiness rates and low college success rates.  Law enforcement alone cannot solve this problem.

  1. I also know that in some classes, for example math, if one misses 4 or 5 days of instruction they come back totally lost. Now, who communicates this kind of information and is it incumbent on all teachers to indicate the difficulties faced by students when they may be absent?

Reports like Skipping to Nowhere and articles like this help to get the word out to parents about the real cost of skipping school.   Parents are the first line of defense.  Students  are clear that if their parents make a big deal about going to school all day, every day (along with a trusted teacher or an athlete/celebrity), they are more likely to attend.   We need to help parents realize the real cost of complacency – and encourage them to make sure their kids get to school.

Organizations like Get Schooled can also help – using its relationships with celebrities and its ability to use pop culture and technology to connect with students – to directly motivate the students so they all see real value in attending school.   And schools can personally reach out to students who have missed – find out why they are absent, and encourage them to attend.  It’s only when all of us work together that we’ll begin to reverse this trend.

  1. Nasty term- but I will use it- retention—should more students be retained IF in fact they were absent so much that an inordinate amount of material is not covered?

This is not my area of expertise; but in an age where states have adopted common core standards, and education and business sectors are working to ensure that a high school degree has value, students who miss too much school are likely to pay a price at some point.    Studies have shown that if a student misses as few as five days it begins to affect achievement levels.  Get Schooled has created an attendance calculator that families can use to begin to see the academic cost of missing school.   The bottom line is that students cannot gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in our economy if they don’t attend school regularly.  It seems basic, but millions and millions of students are missing too much school.

  1. Let’s take a different tack- cutting art, music, P.E.- how serious is this or do you think it establishes bad habits?

I have never seen a study that correlates cutting art, music and PE with broader student outcomes.   One does wonder though, that if you skip music because it’s boring, what will stop you from skipping math or Language Arts next week.  This won’t happen to all students, but it does seem like a natural progression.

  1. Some students obviously feel school is boring—but then again, a lot of things we do in life are boring- does school necessarily HAVE to be filled with excitement and thrills every minute of every hour of every day?

Students need to be engaged in their education.  They need to be a part of it, know why they are there and where they are going.  Being connected to school and the school community can make a huge difference in attendance, whether or not they find a specific class less than interesting.  Get Schooled has sponsored friendly attendance competitions across middle and high schools premised on the fact that raising the visibility of the importance of attendance, giving the school community something to work towards, and giving every student an opportunity to engage, can help to shift the school culture. The results have been amazing – real increases in attendance, school climate, and student morale.

  1. Now, you may not have examined this in the study, but many teachers have students inappropriately mainstreamed into their classes- resulting in teachers having to drill and grill- any simple answers to a complex problem?

This one is definitely beyond the study!

  1. Are the schools doing enough to communicate to parents?

Schools can communicate with parents, but parents also need to trust what the school is telling them.  Too often, schools report a student absent, a student suggests that the school is wrong, and parents believe the students over the schools.  Schools and parents need to work together to benefit the students.

  1. Where can readers get a copy of the report?

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Local business and community organizations can also play a role in getting the word out about the importance of getting to school all day every day.   Local companies can spread the message to parents (NYC metro cards are going to have an attendance message beginning next month) and others can spread the word about Get Schooled wake up calls – students can go to and sign up to receive a wake-up call from a celebrity.   Wake up calls won’t alone solve the problem, nor will metro cards – but together we can create a surround sound that reminds parents and their families how important it is to get to school every day.

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