Attendance: A Foundation of Improving Student Achievement

By Mel Riddile

“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”—Stuart L. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

“Strong instructional leadership is essential for a school to be successful.” Research into how principals spend their time points out that effective instructional leaders focus on “organizational management.” These school leaders understand that they must first create the conditions in which teaching and learning can occur. Strong instructional leaders seek first to create a safe, orderly, and inviting school environment that supports learning, encourages regular attendance, and promotes positive student behavior.

Student attendance is the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room when it comes to discussions of school improvement. How can teachers be held accountable for student achievement when students have poor attendance? How can school and principals be held accountable for student achievement when states allow students to quit school at age 16 and/or have weak attendance laws? How can schools be held accountable for student achievement when law enforcement agencies or the courts are reluctant to enforce existing attendance laws? Finally, how can schools be held accountable for student performance when they have no resources like school attendance officers to assist in improving attendance.

Upon arriving at a new school, I proceeded to ask the teachers a simple Peter Drucker-type question. What do we need to do in order to improve? Although simple in structure, this question contains some critical underlying presuppositions. First, we believed that our students were capable of learning at much higher levels. Second, our school needed to improve. Third, our school can improve. Finally, our school will improve.

When I asked the question, I had a number of teachers give me similar answers, but I will always remember what our Science Department Chair, Sherry Singer, said to me. “Mel, our students don’t come to school, and, when they do, they can’t read.”

It was from that simple question and Sherry’s straightforward response that our (more…)

The Wrong Basic Instincts

By Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader, and author of The Algebra Miracle.

It was a lesson learned on the frontlines of education.

As the 2013-14 school year unfolds across the country that experience compels a retired teacher to repeat the sentiments of Mel Riddile: school leaders will see significant improvement in academic achievement if they trade absolute control for cooperation. The validity of that philosophy delineated by both success and failure can be found at a school that was an aberration in an extraordinarily affluent district.

The fundamentals

The socio-economic demographics of the student body were astounding. The percent of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch was more than the ten wealthiest schools combined.  The mobility, ELL and absentee rates were equally disproportionate. Local street gangs exerted a strong influence within the building. Virtually every measure of academic success matched those negative statistics. Into this difficult situation a new principal made a stunning decision—relinquishing control in the hope that it could translate into improved educational achievement.

The story of this school is chronicled in my book “The Algebra Miracle”. The unwritten chapters of the years that have followed those related in the original story are a powerful reminder of the danger of creating (more…)