September 10, 2015 – While working as a student teacher in a local high school some years ago, I was introduced to the mind-numbing business of taking attendance before each class hour. The routine process, involving some quick key board clicks on a digital report across 156 student names and six class hours, wasn’t itself time-consuming except for assembling lesson materials that needed to be set aside for absent students each day. Doing so gave them and their families some sense of what took place in the classroom that day. But in reality, it didn’t entirely replicate the learning process, the active exchange of questions, discussions, ideas and those wonderful unexpected ah-ha moments that come from the daily teacher-student experience. And not everyone was able to take advantage of take-home material.
Even though I frequently shared the importance of keeping up by coming to class with the teens and parents I worked with, I knew the problems some kids faced attending regularly were varied and complicated by their personal challenges. Chronic asthma; sick parents at home; early morning jobs teens took to support their families; struggles with mental illness and family trauma. Rarely could skipping school be explained by teen obstinacy alone. But absences did cause them to struggle in school and ultimately put roadblocks to their post secondary schooling and career training. Now, new information from Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign this month gives a deeper look into chronic school absences – an issue gaining priority in education as a national crisis.
Released this September during Attendance Awareness Month, the report, “Mapping the Early Attendance Gap: Charting a Course for Student Success,” spotlights a problem bigger than many people would expect with 7.5 million students missing nearly a month of school a year. It’s a problem that can be tracked to preschool and kindergarten whose absentee rates are nearly as high as teen’s rates, according to the report. The life-long consequences are serious, too. Children who are repeatedly absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiency by third grade. In middle school, students with chronic absences are more likely to drop out in high school. School testing and performance measures are negatively impacted, resulting in limited opportunities for success as students move on.
Using survey data taken during national testing of 4th and 8th graders, the report also pinpoints who is missing school, and in Michigan it doesn’t bode well for children of color, children with disabilities and children from low-income families. Once again, a national educational issue is hitting our vulnerable populations hardest and the numbers are compelling.
- The report found 32 percent of Michigan’s African-American 4th graders missed three or more days in a given month compared to 22 percent nationally. The rate was the same for Michigan 8th graders, 32 percent, compared to 23 percent across the country.
- Michigan’s Hispanic children also missed more school than the national average: In 4th grade, the Michigan rate was 28 percent compared to 21 percent nationally and in 8th grade, 26 percent compared to 22 percent.
- And Michigan children with disabilities also missed more school then peers nationally: 31 versus 25 percent in 4th grade, and 34 vs. 28 percent among 8th graders.
Attendance and truancy have gotten attention from political leaders in Michigan in recent years. Gov. Snyder’s Pathways to Potential program launched in 2012 as a means to reduce truancy by co-locating Department of Health and Human Services staff in schools. Some communities have developed successful strategies that are seeing progress in attendance, like the Kent School Services Network and others. Michigan needs to learn from success and build whole-community approaches statewide.
The State Board of Education and School Superintendent Brian Whiston are taking a serious look at what’s needed to make Michigan a top 10 state in education. Addressing the causes of school absenteeism should be a part of those conversations as we set our sights on helping all kids learn and achieve in Michigan.
– Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.