Education Opinion

Understanding Truancy

By Walt Gardner — October 09, 2013 2 min read
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Truancy conjures up images of students ditching school to pass the time doing whatever they like. But the term is more complex because states differ in their definition. For example, in California three or more unexcused absences or tardies put students in that category, resulting in a truancy rate of between seven and 15 percent (“AWOL from the classroom,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6).

The usual way to measure truancy is to look at average daily attendance rates. But with the exception of a few states, even a high daily attendance rate of 90 percent can disguise the fact that 40 percent of students are consistently missing. Yet only six states -Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island - report chronic absenteeism, as do some local systems, including New York City and Oakland.

Overall, about 15 percent of students are chronically absent, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University (“ ‘Chronically Absent’ Students Skew School Data, Study Finds, Citing Parents’ Role,” The New York Times, May 17, 2012). Contrary to popular belief, the problem often begins in elementary school, where nationwide about one in 10 kindergarten and first grade students miss a month of school each year due to absences.

Regardless of whether absences are excused or unexcused, teachers are responsible for helping them make up the work they missed. This policy places an enormous burden on teachers who become de facto tutors, in addition to their regular teaching. I had students who were absent for as long as a month. It was impossible to bring them up to par with their classmates. The best I could do was provide a sketchy summation of the work they had missed.

Recognizing that chronic absenteeism greatly enhances the likelihood of dropping out, California is attempting to hold accountable everyone who bears responsibility for getting students to class (“How California should deal with truancy,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 30). Some say the answer is to “put the onus on school principals and staff to head off absences and to work with families, through phone calls and visists - to find out why kids are missing school or acting out and focus on helping them, rather than sending them adrift” (“Schools are setting too many troubled kids adrift,” Sacramento Bee, Oct. 6).

I say the buck stops with the parents. When they are actively involved in the education of their children, the likelihood of truancy is dramatically reduced. Nothing else can ever duplicate their influence. The school is no substitute for the home.

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.