School Attendance Myths

September is Attendance Awareness Month

Ask any educational reformer for a list of the most critical problems in our schools today and the topic of student attendance will inevitably end up near the top.  The logic is simple—if you are not there, you are not going to learn.  Let’s begin by examining  five significant myths about student attendance .

Students don’t start missing a lot of school until middle or high school.

National research has determined that 10% of all kindergarten and first-graders miss at least a month of school each year.  In some places, such as New York City, the number of students is twice as high.  Obviously, the vast majority of these absences are excused—children at this age are unlikely to be staying home without some parental supervision.  The ramifications are potentially immense:  “…the bad attendance habits that lead to skipping school can become entrenched in the early years.”

Absences in the early grades don’t really affect academics.

Not surprisingly, studies show that chronically absent kindergarten students do not perform as well in the first grade as those who were consistently present.  It is not unusual to have these deficiencies continue throughout elementary school.  Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments was found in Chicago where the attendance of ninth-graders proved to be a better predictor of dropouts than eighth grade test scores.

Most schools already know how many students are chronically absent.

Unfortunately, most school data concerning absences only revolve around the total school attendance patterns and “unexcused” absences.  Consequently, many individuals who are missing large portions of class time remain under the educational radar.  For example “an elementary school of 400 students can have 95 percent of its students showing up every day and yet still have 60 children missing 18 days—or 10 percent of the school year.”

There’s not much that schools can do to improve attendance; it’s up to the parents.

While certainly the traditional path of parental involvement and truant officers needs to be taken, there are often unique concerns that an individual school can incorporate into their programs.  Many causes of chronic absenteeism can be mitigated.  In one school, students were frequently absent because a number of parents who were shift workers and were not awake when their children should have been leaving for school.  The school opened the building early to allow parents to drop off their children after work and before going to bed.

The federal  or state government has no role in reducing chronic absenteeism.

Test scores may be important but one of the major reasons for poor test scores is bad attendance.  A number of states are now reporting on student attendance rates, strengthening attendance laws, and providing resources for effective enforcement.

The Bottom Line

Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.  Every day that is missed is a lost opportunity regardless of whether the absence is excused or not.  Consequently, strategies need to be created to maximize student presence. In one school the administrative team recognized the importance of this problem and employed a number of techniques to reduce “excused” absences.  For students who were chronically absent, an automated callout system was used to make 6:00 a.m. wake-up calls.  These kinds of interventions need to occur at the very beginning of a student’s education.

For every K-12 school the overriding need is to acknowledge that all absences -excused or unexcused – are detrimental. They have both short- and long-term negative consequences.  A culture establishing excellent attendance must be created in the earliest grades.  To that end, careful and consistent attention must be given to the analysis of the attendance record of each individual student not just school-wide data.  Every reason given for missing school should be examined and methods devised to prevent them from becoming chronic. If such an approach is started in the primary years, the continuation of such policies at the high school level will become far more effective.

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