It’s that time of year again when we assume children are back in school and that being absent is due to illness or extraordinary events.
How many absences do you think a teacher must deal with in the course of a year: 200? 500?
If you said that sounds about right or even high, go to the back of the class.
Data show that last school year, this humble teacher had 1,793 student absences. That is not a typo. The average number of days missed per student was 13.7, or almost three weeks of instruction.
If we extrapolate these numbers over a kindergarten-to-12th-grade education, the average student misses 178 days, or a full year of instruction, during his school career.
The crisis of these numbers is not an aberration. Chronic absenteeism (missing 10% or more of school or a month or more per year, which translates into 18 days a year) is prevalent in our schools.
The reason these numbers are not reported is because attendance statistics only show average daily attendance. Sarasota County reports a 95.5% average daily attendance rate, but that means that as many as 40% of its students may be chronically absent because on different days, different students are in school.
Think about the effects of absenteeism. The extra work loads and loss of academic potential are monumental. Being present in school leads to succeeding in school; poor attendance affects standardized test scores, graduation rates and teacher effectiveness.
The Georgia Department of Education found “that just a 3% improvement in attendance, or five additional days, would have led more than 55,000 students to pass end-of-year standardized tests in reading, English or mathematics in grades three to eight. The biggest impact was for students who missed between five and 10 days of school, suggesting that missing even a week to two weeks can have a significant negative impact on achievement.”
Another study by education sociologist Douglas Ready showed that “compared to children with average attendance, chronically absent students gained 15% fewer literacy skills and 12% fewer mathematics skills in first grade.” Multiplying these losses over the kindergarten-to-12th-grade experience has devastating consequences on learning.
And this epidemic of absenteeism is nationwide, says “Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools,” by Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes from Johns Hopkins School of Education. They conclude that “a national rate of 10% chronic absenteeism seems conservative, and it could be as high as 15%, meaning that 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent … with significant numbers of students missing amounts of school that are staggering: on the order of six months to more than a year, over a five-year period.”
Data from Florida following a group of all first-time sixth-graders in the state over seven years showed almost half the students in the sixth-grade cohort had been chronically absent in at least one year; with one in five students severely chronically absent in at least one year.
The Florida cohort data suggests that in most cases chronic absenteeism is not an isolated occurrence.
Notwithstanding the fraud being committed on the taxpayer who is funding empty desks, if we want high-stakes testing to close achievement gaps, tie teacher pay to performance, and foster academic excellence through discipline from our children, dealing with absenteeism must be a priority.
Parents and educators must be willing to defend sound educational principles regarding attendance. These principles include high expectations and accountability for parents, students and teachers, with a steadfast application of the highly specific laws regarding attendance. Anything less is educational malfeasance and parental negligence.
Dean Kalahar is a Sarasota resident and teaches economics at Sarasota High School.
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