Starting School and Staying There

September 2, 2014 – Here we are, the day after Labor Day, with all eyes toward young people returning to school.  Now that they are back, we need to keep them there – making sure that they aren’t losing opportunity because of multiple absences, and making sure that they stick it out until high school graduation and beyond.

September is national Attendance Awareness Month and the noteworthy Attendance Works national organization released today a study about the impact of attendance, or lack of attendance, on educational success in Michigan and around the country, titled Absences Add Up: How Attendance Influences Student Success.  As the report authors discuss, and Michigan’s Children has discussed many times in our blogs and elsewhere, it has never before been so essential that we move all of our young people to educational success.  One of the barriers to doing this is when young people aren’t getting all of the learning opportunities that they could.  This happens during the summer, it happens during the 80 percent of waking hours that children and youth aren’t in school and it happens when they are absent.  Bottom line:  they miss out and have limited opportunity to catch up.

So, not surprisingly, what Absences Add Up reports is that in Michigan and around the country, your assessment scores have EVERYTHING to do with how often you are absent.  Being present in school matters to academic performance for each grade and subject studied, for every group of children and in every locality.  The report states that “in many cases, the students with more absences have skill levels one to two years below their peers. While students from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent, the ill effects of missing too much school hold true for all socioeconomic groups.”

In Michigan, there was a 15 point difference in average math assessment scores between 4th graders with no absences in the past month and those who missed at 3 or more days.  Similar gaps are seen in 4th and 8th grade reading.  The largest gap in Michigan is the 23 point difference for 8th grade math.  I see the impact of the cumulative nature of math instruction with my own kids, which is clearly hampered by multiple absence.

What are the keys to keeping kids in school?  Ah, that is the complication.  There are many reasons why children and youth are absent from school, some of which are under the control of the school system and some that are not.  The State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Human Services recently staffed a Truancy Task Force with the purpose of building a common definition for truancy that could be utilized across the state.  In the course of that discussion, what was also apparent is that there are as many reasons for absence as there are absences themselves and a myriad of ways that local school systems both report and deal with absence.  So if it is this complicated, what can be done?

  1. Support integrated services in schools.  When schools are able to connect families with other community resources, there are more chances to find and address the causes of school absence – be they related to physical and behavioral health issues, unstable housing, bullying or disengagement by parents or students.
  2. Support expanded learning opportunities.  There is ample evidence documenting the impact of quality afterschool and summer learning programs on in-school attendance.  When expanded learning opportunities are utilized to engage and re-engage young people in their learning, they are more likely to engage and re-engage with school as well.

As we’ve been saying over and over again, this election season gives all of us a platform to see what the candidates for office suggest we do to keep kids in school and learning.  When kids miss school, they miss opportunity.  They can’t afford it and neither can we.