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Thompson: Accountability... For Attendance

TruancyI would like to offer a modest proposal for updating one part of NCLB’s accountability system: All roads to school improvement in the inner city must go through the family crises that cause chronic absenteeism.  The John Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center has documented the importance of chronic absenteeism, identifying it as one of the "ABCs" that predict educational failure. Along with the "B" of persistent misbehavior and the "C" of low course performance, the "A" of missing 10% of school days can predict with 75% accuracy which 6th graders will fail to graduate. Hopkins researchers then make a powerful case for state-of-the-art Early Warning Systems to address absenteeism and craft solutions before it metastasises. The Everyone Graduates Center reports, however, that only 16 states have the longitudinal data systems necessary for timely interventions. Moreover, only four states disseminate data to educators on a weekly or daily basis. In other words, during the era of No Child Left Behind, our nation invested billions of dollars for digital accountability systems, but relative pennies for data systems to directly help our most vulnerable children. 

Even if we believe that standardized testing is the greatest thing since sliced bread, surely educators and policy makers could agree to a different approach for attendance provisions. In states like mine, educators are held accountable for improving attendance rates, but not for addressing chronic absenteeism. So, I propose that one small part of NCLB be amended to hold schools accountable for crafting solutions. Even the most committed believers in accountability based on "outputs" should be willing to allow, say, 10% of their metrics to be based on high-quality "inputs" to directly confront a root cause of educational failure. 

The first step is to recognize why NCLB been so disappointing in improving outcomes for chronically absent students. Few metrics are easier to fabricate than absenteeism rates. When systems are held accountable for attendance, which is something that is not under their direct control, the temptation is to "juke the stats."

Tricks for jacking up attendance rates range from calling roll at the end of the period, so that students who arrive for the last minute of class are now "Present," to the widespread practices of "working off absences." After all, an "Absence" means that someone entered an "A" or some other code into a computer. Nothing prevents systems from entering a "P," "K," "L," "X," or any other codes indicating that the student who was not in class was not "Absent." In an era of accountability, where dubious "credit recovery" schemes are common, few shortcuts are more tempting than erasing tens or twenties of absences per student by claiming that it was a part of the remediation efforts mandated in the name of NCLB. And when systems play games with absences, it is easy to see why students and parents take a cavalier approach to attending class. 

My alternative would be to hold systems accountable for high-quality efforts to combat chronic absenteeism. Districts would be evaluated on the quality of their Early Warning System and aligned efforts to help kids make it to class. I would also give credit for districts integrating data regarding the "B" and the "C" of behavior and coursework into the longitudinal systems for providing wraparound services to individual students. 

We should borrow from the findings of the Everyone Graduates Center and use data to determine whether they are properly devising and implementing warning systems. Districts should be held accountable for addressing technical issues and ensuring the accuracy of their numbers. They should be required to document a focus on "high yield" indicators such as early interventions for students who miss 10% of the school year. Schools should be required to demonstrate collaboration with the stakeholders, ranging from parents and teachers to social service agencies, who are a necessary for the design and implementation of a high-quality team effort. A premium would thus be placed on transparency and coordination. 

For over a decade, reformers have sought a focus on data in the hopes that it will indirectly benefit kids. Surely we can afford to directly target one of the obstacles faced by kids. 

The punitive has been stressed in order to achieve positive outcomes. We should concentrate on "Win Win" solutions for at least one problem, and not the persons who have failed to solve it. And frankly, those who are most committed to data-driven instruction should welcome my suggestion. It is hard to test accountability theories on students who do not show up for the experiment.-JT (@drjohnthompson)Image via.


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This to me is something that I find very interesting to read and think about. I have seen this sort of thing happen in the school I teach in right now. We have students that miss a lot of school because parents decide it is okay to just take their students out on vacations and other sorts of things. I believe this is a little different than what you’re discussing because I teach in a junior high setting, where it is harder for students to just skip school, or skip specific classes.

In our school, when we have issues where students are chronically missing school, we usually make sure we get a hold of the parents and talk to them about what is going on. For example, we have a student who always comes to school just before lunch, because she knows she needs to be there half the day to be able to participate in play practice. Whenever we call, we’re giving the reason that she is just sick until around lunch time. This has been an especially hard situation because if we say we do not believe that, we are calling the parents liars. One of the ways I am combating this in my junior high science classroom is I am making the student make up the labs and assignments she misses before she can go to play practice. This has been an annoyance to the student and parent, but it stresses the idea that academics come first.

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