Attendance is a Two Sided Affair

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

This is the second of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part three will address the issue of field trips and attendance.

Sometimes teacher training must take a backseat.

In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. 

In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.

An offer that can be refused

Educating requires life-long learning. When speaking to new teachers I would always share one comment. “Every year whether it was my second, twenty-second, thirty-second or fortieth, I was making adjustments to my teaching. It is never a finished product and anyone who thinks they know it all is wrong.” I began my career with ditto machines, trig charts, pointing sticks and a typewriter. Along the way I acquired Xerox machines that would print double-sided, staple and collate, graphing calculators, power point presentations,  computers and the internet just to name a few. Without proper training in the use of all of these marvelous educational instruments I would have never been able to maximize their incredible value.

During those same years there were plenty of other changes. The required curriculum at the start of my career was akin to the Wild West. The Program of Studies (POS) was said to be the road map but was seldom read and never tested. In contrast the Standards of Learning (SOL) and later the Common Core became the overriding force in the classroom generating statistics that were endlessly studied and restudied.  Again training in these state-mandated goals was critical.

But there is a time and a place for everything.

Throughout the typical school year teachers are offered both at the district and school level the opportunity to attend workshops, seminars and meetings that will assist them in applying new strategies, technologies and requirements in the classroom. There is an inevitable pattern to these discussions. After explaining that these events will occur during the school year the final comment will be “and we will provide you with a substitute”. Unfortunately for the vast majority of teachers, the knowledge that someone will be available to teach their classes is the least of their concerns.

A law of diminishing returns

While many of these gatherings are potentially beneficial, there are few circumstances that disrupt a classroom more than the absence of the teacher. Mel Riddile clearly demonstrated that poor attendance will doom a student’s chances for academic success. Likewise, education suffers a setback every time that same student sits in a room with a substitute teacher.

Multiple problems occur when teachers miss class time. The most obvious is that students do not learn as much. Research by the Gates Foundation and others has clearly demonstrated that the most important component in student success is the quality of the teacher. It takes little imagination to recognize that removing that individual from the educational equation will have negative consequences. Substitutes regardless of their talent and dedication cannot generate the same level of learning as a high quality teacher.

But there are other negatives that may not be quite so apparent. Ask almost any teacher and they will tell you that it takes significantly longer to prepare a lesson for when they are away from school. Every classroom step, instinctive and otherwise, must be written out in painstaking detail. No new material can be introduced and critical review will have to wait. It is a tragic inverse variation—more time is required to produce less progress. There are very few meetings that can justify this loss of academic movement.

There are other issues. Multiple missed days increase the difficulties exponentially. Block scheduling has its own concerns. The same curriculum taught on different days has to be either slowed down or sped up. Neither is productive.

Teacher training is critically important but it needs to take place when it will have the least classroom impact. Improving school attendance must focus on both sides of the desk in the front of the classroom.


  • Pam Richmond says:

    I strongly agree with the message here. But what is the solution? Paid training during the summer is probably prohibitively expensive. Training during teacher work days will leave many feeling ‘cheated’ of valuable time to set up their classrooms, grade papers, and make lesson plans. Training in after-school spurts is, I think, doomed to have little impact. When can this very valuable learning take place?

  • Stu Singer says:


    Thank you for your comment. You are correct that there is no easy solution but I think your first thought (summer paid workshops) is the best answer. Throwing money at education is not always the right answer as you know but sometimes it can be as in this case. Turn around training never works and missing school is just another method of cutting down on student/teacher contact. Money on summer training would be a very worthwhile and necessary expense.


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