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Are We Thinking About Absenteeism Wrong? What It Takes to Keep Kids in School (Opinion)

Student absenteeism is a big issue these days. The media is reporting on it, politicians are using it as a talking point, and school and system leaders are adding it to their ever-increasing list of things they need to contend with. I was talking recently to some administrators about how their state is now tracking student absences. We discussed various strategies they’re using to get kids back to school. Home visits. Outreach by phone and text. Partnerships with community agencies. Increasing social workers. Social-emotional-learning programs. Mental health services. All these are necessary measures. None, however, to my mind, is sufficient.

In the fall, I attended my son’s back to school night. When my wife and I got home, I asked my son, a sophomore, why he bothered going to school. My wife looked at me incredulously, and my son peeled his eyes from his phone as he grunted, “Huh?” I proceeded to tell them both that I was only half-joking and that my question stemmed from having listened to every one of his teachers share their practice of posting lessons and supporting materials online. I left the school thinking that a student could stay home most of the time and just download the slides and anything else at their leisure. Much like they did during the pandemic.

As I talked to my son about this, he shared that he went to school because he learns better when he discusses the lesson in class, and, of course, he wants to see his friends. Even if he didn’t want to go to school, he knows that his mom and I expect it and he doesn’t have much choice. But questions remain for so many students: Why attend school if the material can be accessed online? Why attend school if the subjects being taught don’t feel relevant in today’s world? Why attend school if we’re not allowed to discuss big, hairy, difficult issues or read complex books?

Kids have said forever that school is boring; I know I certainly did back in Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y., in the mid-1980s. But now, somehow, it feels different. Maybe in the sorta-post-pandemic world where the rules changed radically about how school is done, kids (and adults) know that attending school every day isn’t the only way to learn. Perhaps the incredible political divisiveness and big issues that no one seems willing to solve like the climate crisis, or gun violence, or institutional racism have created a malaise among young people. Maybe they see the rising cost of college and the lack of affordable housing and don’t see how their current education prepares them for a solid economic future. Maybe everyone is on their devices in school, just like at home and in the mall and everywhere else, and in-class interactions simply aren’t as stimulating as their online world. I don’t purport to know exactly why kids aren’t showing up, but I do know that our focus on getting them back isn’t enough.

School and system leaders today must do whatever it takes to get kids to cross the threshold again. But once they’re in a classroom, a child’s experience with content, educators, and peers will keep them there. Getting kids to return requires technical leadership. Keeping them there calls for adaptive skills.

At its most basic, technical leadership is about solving a problem when it’s right in front of you. COVID shut down schools, so get classes online. Certainly a difficult challenge but a reasonably straightforward one.

Adaptive leadership, on the other hand, requires that leaders spend time diagnosing a problem from a systems perspective and then constantly innovate, study, and adapt according to what they’re learning. Classes have been put online, but teachers and students are dealing with family health issues, people don’t want to be on camera, wireless access is unstable, and kids are thus falling behind. That set of circumstances requires leaders to solve problems by understanding the context students and adults are in and adjusting and readjusting their strategies.

Technical leadership is required to solve an immediate problem that’s reasonably straightforward. Adaptive leadership is about resolving deep issues and retooling the system so it sticks.

Make no mistake, the work of getting kids back into school is no easy task. It will take an entire school community. Keeping them there, and keeping them engaged, will likely be harder, but in some ways, it might be more joyous. If there were ever a time for leaders to throw out the old rule book and try new things, this is it. Now is the time to ask teachers, students, and families to lead and come up with solutions for how to make school more engaging.

Imagine a superintendent asking their principals to focus on the experience students are having every day in school rather than just the required content and the required tests. What does it feel like to be part of the school community? How are student needs (and adult ones for that matter) being taken care of? What are our day-to-day interactions like in classrooms, in hallways, and in common spaces? What happens when a student doesn’t follow the rules, assuming they’re not a danger to themselves or others? Are teachers leading and using their professionalism and knowledge to engage students or just following the set curriculum? How are student and family voices used to guide decisionmaking? I could go on, but you get the point.

Too many educators are working too hard just to get kids back into class. Their work is heroic and underappreciated by the public. Yet, I fear that we may not be fighting the right battle. I don’t dismiss the real constraints that educators are under to meet state academic standards. But it’s abundantly clear that a different kind of leadership is required to keep kids engaged once they’re back behind the walls.

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