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What’s Behind the Explosion in Student Absenteeism? (Opinion)

In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it means for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and we will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us. Today’s topic is chronic absenteeism.

Rick

Jal: Chronic absenteeism has become a central issue of focus post-COVID. Statistics show that absenteeism rates, even before COVID, were high in some districts, and that those numbers have risen across the board, including in more affluent districts. Earlier this spring, The New York Times ran a front-page story that quoted the research of your colleague Nat Malkus, titled “Why School Absences Have Exploded Almost Everywhere,” with the subtitle, “Our relationship with school became optional.” (Nat also wrote a guest letter on absenteeism for RHSU here.) Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year, increased from 15 percent in 2018–19 to 26 percent in 2022–23.

So why is this happening, and what should we make of it? One way to look at it, implied by the Times’ subhead, is that we have essentially “defined deviance down,” to quote the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Missing school was previously stigmatized, but now that the stigma has lessened, more kids are staying home from school. Perhaps, after years of being told not to come to school if there is even the slightest possibility you are sick, it can become customary to think that attendance isn’t as important as people previously claimed it was.

But I’m struck by the way in which this discussion has completely ignored the most important and obvious question: Why don’t kids want to come to school? The current debate seems to take as a given that the students and not the schools are the problem. We know that most academic tasks are fairly rote and that students report seeing little purpose in completing them, and we know that many students, particularly the most disengaged, have few if any deep and meaningful relationships with the adults in their buildings. But rather than take these things on, our analysis seems to focus almost exclusively on what the students and their parents need to be doing differently.

If we took this perspective seriously, we would stop hectoring students. Instead, we would really think about whether we wanted to make some significant changes in our schools and we might enlist students to help us in doing so. For instance, Salem Middle School in Salem, Massachusetts, was able to reduce its absenteeism rate by more than 50 percent by convening students in a human-centered design process and using what they learned to develop a more flexible curriculum, create opportunities to learn in local communities, and design more hands-on and project-based learning. Much as the post-pandemic work conversation has led to a redesign of many workplaces to attract those skeptical of returning to the nine-to-five grind, we could view students’ slow return to school as a sign that we should redesign schools as well.

Rick, what do you think?

Rick: I’m with you on at least half of this. We agree that we need to focus on why kids are disengaged and on making school feel engaging and important. On the other hand (and here’s where we may disagree), I don’t think there’s ever been a time when most kids were excited about school. Yet, it’s important that families and educators view school-going as nonetheless healthy and important.

Let me start with where we agree. Too much schooling consists of distractions and dead time. Too much instruction consists of listening to fumbled explanations, working with subpar materials, or tackling assignments and projects that just aren’t all that interesting. All of which you discussed pretty pointedly when you wrote In Search Of Deeper Learning. We do need a fundamental rethinking, and the pandemic has created an opportunity for just that.

There are many ways for schools to do better. It’s tough for teachers to calibrate instruction to suit 25 or 30 students. Tech-aided differentiation, along the lines of New Classrooms or the Modern Classrooms Project, can help. It’s tough for teachers to devise sharp lessons, deliver engaging instruction, offer timely feedback, mentor, reach out to families, and all the rest. Rethinking the job, along the lines of Opportunity Culture or the Next Education Workforce, can help. And so on, and so on.

That said, I think it’s nuts to suggest that absenteeism is OK if school is deemed insufficiently engaging. This winter, University of Southern California researchers asked parents why their kids are missing so much school. The most common reason was their kids were “oversleeping or not being able to get out of bed in the morning.” That reflects an abdication by parents and a failure of education leaders to reestablish clear post-pandemic expectations. I mean, getting kids out of bed in the morning has been a challenge since time immemorial.

I don’t know many people who ever found school especially fun (I sure didn’t). But the daily grind, with peers, teachers, and homework, creates a necessary routine. It gives them a sense of purpose and order, which can serve as a valuable anchor for youth even when they’re griping about it or rebelling against it. It gives students the chance to make friends and navigate the larger world. It allows students to play sports, participate in the band, get rowdy at recess, find their clique, and do the sorts of things that can actually make school fun. I think a big part of the problem is what’s happened to these kinds of activities.

We talked this spring about the hollowing out of sports and the ways in which nervous administrators have sharply limited what kids can do at recess. Baseball and band are more fun when more kids are interested and engaged in school. And this means that the more students tune out, the less engaging schools tend to be. So, I fear that the message of “It’s OK to stop going to school until kids want to go as much as they’d like to lay in bed and scroll TikTok” gives parents permission to indulge their kids while eroding the norms sorely needed by a generation with too few social ties or real-world interactions.

I’m curious about your reactions to my callous take (with its “suck it up” overtones).

Jal: Don’t get me wrong: School is not always going to be highly engaging, and kids should go even so. I’m constantly sending mine to school with minor ailments; there are no mental health days in the Mehta household.

Attendance Works has analyzed the absenteeism crisis and divides the reasons students don’t go into four categories: 1) barriers, including poor transportation, family instability, housing and food insecurity, community violence, and more; 2) aversion, including social challenges at school, anxiety, academic struggles, and an unwelcoming school climate; 3) disengagement, including boredom and lack of connection with a trusted adult; and 4) misconceptions, which basically means students not realizing that missing school can harm their academic future. These different categories call for different responses—there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. The obvious first step for any school or community facing an absenteeism problem is to talk to your students and parents and try to figure out what is going on before you formulate a response.

Now that I’ve established myself as a reasonable person, I want to return to my original point: The vast majority of the discussion of absenteeism focuses on the student and not the school. I once received an email from a foundation touting their Rube Goldbergesque system for tracking attendance, creating data dashboards, offering a data-driven response, and so forth. You could do that, I thought. Or, you could make school a place where students want to go.

I’ve made this point before, but I think it’s worth reiterating here: We’ve organized school into a profoundly individualistic enterprise. If you don’t go, you are the only one who loses out. In contrast, on athletic teams, in theatrical productions, and in most workplaces, you are part of a group that is trying to accomplish something. There is a purpose to what you are doing, you have a role, and if you don’t show up, you are letting people down. If we organized school along these lines, kids would feel much more obligation to come.

Rick: Yeah, I think we agree on most of this. I will say that, to a certain degree, I think learning is an inherently individualistic endeavor. We can work in teams and practice with others, but learning always comes down to a given learner—kid or grown-up—mastering the knowledge or skill in question. That caveat aside, I totally buy your larger point. Kids want to go to soccer practice or spend Saturday with their garage band precisely because it’s fun to do things as part of a crew—and those ties create a sense of responsibility and reciprocal obligation.

That sense of connection has been eroded in all kinds of ways. That happens when kids are on and off phones all day in school, when there’s less participation in after-school clubs and sports, and when classrooms and corridors are chaotic. But I also fear the push, from parents and educators, has crumbled in the wake of the pandemic. Well-meaning parents and educators got so used to cutting kids a lot of slack in the past few years—when it comes to grading, workloads, use of devices, attendance, and much else—that it’s been tough to reel things back. But we need to.

A final thought on all this. You note that byzantine data systems can distract us from the act of making schools places that kids want to be. It’s a good point. I’ll offer a controversial corollary: I fear that reasonable concerns about youth well-being have yielded apologetics, excuse-making, and aimless fragility, all of which makes it harder to promote the kind of engaging, challenging, and purposeful learning that makes a school into the kind of place students want to be.

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