Back to school: How about showing up?

Aug 22, 2012 by

Dean Kalahar

By Dean Kalahar –

It’s that time of year again when we assume children are back in school and that being absent is only due to illness or extraordinary events.

How many absences do you think a teacher has to deal with in the course of a year; 200, 500? If you said that sounds about right or even high, go to the back of the class.

Data shows that last school year, this humble teacher had 1793 absences! That is not a typo, and means the average number of days missed per student was 13.7 or almost 3 weeks of instruction. It goes without saying the extra work load and loss of academic potential is monumental. If we extrapolate these numbers over a k-12 education, the average student misses 178 days or a full year of instruction over their school career.

The crisis of these numbers is not an aberration. Chronic absenteeism (missing 10 percent or more of school or a month or more per year, which translates into 18 days a year) is prevalent in our schools.

The reason these numbers are not reported is because attendance statistics only show average daily attendance. Sarasota County reports a 95.5% average daily attendance rate, but that means that as many as 40 percent of its students may be chronically absent because on different days different students are in school.

It does not take rocket science to know that being in school leads to succeeding in school while poor attendance affects standardized test scores, graduation rates, and teacher effectiveness.

The Georgia Department of Education found “that just a 3 percent improvement in attendance – five additional days — would have led more than 55,000 students to pass end-of-year standardized tests in reading, English, or mathematics in grades 3 to 8. The biggest impact was for students who missed between five and 10 days of school, suggesting that missing even a week to two weeks can have a significant negative impact on achievement.”

A study by Douglas Ready showed that “compared to children with average attendance, chronically absent students gained 15 percent fewer literacy skills and 12 percent fewer mathematics skills in first grade.” Multiplying these losses over the k-12 experience has devastating consequences on learning.

And this epidemic of absenteeism is nationwide says a report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools, by Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes from Johns Hopkins School of Education. They conclude that “a national rate of 10 percent chronic absenteeism seems conservative and it could be as high as 15 percent, meaning that 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent … with significant numbers of students (are) missing amounts of school that are staggering: on the order of six months to over a year, over a five year period.”

The report states that “chronic absenteeism is typically based on total days of school missed, including both excused and unexcused absences. This is critical because the evidence indicates that it is how many days a student misses that matters, not why they miss them.”

Findings from the report are sobering:

  • There is essentially a linear relationship between each missed day and lower test performance. Through the first 20 days missed there is a greater than 1 point decline in mathematics performance per day and three-fourths of a point in reading.
  • During the critical middle and high school years, 46 percent of students in at least one of those years missed a month or more of school and 18 percent missed two or more months of school.
  • In 2009-2010, Florida’s reported rate of 10 percent translates into more than 300,000 students a year missing more than a month.
  • Data from Florida following a group of all first-time sixth-graders in the state over seven years showed almost half the students in the Florida sixth-grade cohort had been chronically absent in at least one year; with one in five students severely chronically absent in at least one year (missing two or more months of school).
  • The Florida cohort data suggests that in most cases chronic absenteeism is not an isolated occurrence but a frequent and recurring one with cumulative effects for such students.

Notwithstanding the fraud being committed on the tax payer who is funding empty desks; if we want high stakes testing to close achievement gaps, tie teacher pay to performance, and foster academic excellence through discipline from our children, dealing with absenteeism must be a priority.

Parents and educators must be willing to defend sound educational principles regarding attendance. These principles include high expectations and accountability for parents, students, and teachers with a steadfast application of the highly specific laws regarding attendance. Anything less is educational malfeasance and parental negligence.

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