Education Opinion

Non-Illness Absences Hurt Learning

By Walt Gardner — September 19, 2014 2 min read
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Now that the fall semester is underway, it won’t be long before student absenteeism begins. There are many reasons why students are not in class, but I’ve long felt that the only justifiable ones are for health or family emergencies (“Truancy rates are higher among California’s low-income students, report says,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 12).

States vary in their rules regarding absenteeism and truancy. Most measure only average daily attendance. That means some schools can report an average of, say, 90 percent and still obscure the 40 percent who are chronically missing. Moreover, students who are not in class even for a protracted time period can avoid being marked delinquent as long as their parents sign a re-entry form acknowledging that they granted permission.

In California, truancy rates are disproportionately higher for disadvantaged students than for their more affluent peers. For example, African-American students were truant last year at a rate more than 2.5 times their white peers. I suspect the same is true in other states. The rate is most pronounced in the earliest grades, although it’s unclear why this is so. Overall, as many as 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year. This chronic absenteeism is a red flag that raises the likelihood of dropping out.

When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, students who knew they were going to be absent from school for non-illness reasons had to first get permission from the administration and then from the individual teachers involved. Otherwise, they would be marked delinquent. The reasons for the requests seemed to reflect the backgrounds of the students. At the start of my career when the school was overwhelmingly composed of students from high socioeconomic families, the usual request was for travel. But as enrollment became more diverse like the city itself, the usual request was for attendance at hospitals or funerals in other countries.

In either case, however, teachers were required to provide students with help making up the work they missed, even though it was impossible to ever duplicate what took place in class during their absence. I don’t know of any teacher who refused to grant permission, but I remember how many of them complained about essentially becoming private tutors.

Just as some parents are better suited to homeschool their children, so too are some parents better able to follow through on assigned work. But I don’t think any of them understands that they are shortchanging their children by taking them out of class.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.