Sunday, June 10, 2018

Chronic Absenteeism -- Is School Seen As Free Public Babysitting?

Chronic absenteeism in Maine's schools -- 16% of students are chronically absent according to a new report that shocked many-- was not news to me. As a teacher I've been bugging school administrators for years about pressuring the families of kids who are missing in action for ridiculous reasons.*

I still remember the first superintendent who patiently explained to me why bringing truancy charges was a waste of time and money: the maximum penalty was $50, seldom enforced.

I am one of those idealistic teachers who changed professions and left the private sector knowing that my family was taking a financial hit that we might or might not recover from.

Homeschoolers reading this are probably wondering why I think the state has any right to require attendance. I support parental rights to educate your own children in your own way, and I've seen some impressive results. (Also some dismal results, like an 8 year old that couldn't read, or a 10 year old who had never heard of slavery or the Civil War.)

When I hear parents wondering if they should homeschool or send their kids to school my reaction is: Weren't you planning to do both?

But most children kept home from schools where I've worked are not doing educational things. They are playing video games or watching comedy (or worse) on YouTube.

Statistics show that kids have often cited avoiding a bully as a reason for absenteeism, and I don't doubt that. But in the age of cyberbullying, most tweens and teens will experience attacks when they are at home in the privacy of their bedroom. It's one of the things that makes bullying via social media so harrowingIn school there are adults who will confront bullies. Teachers seldom witness bullying for that very reason: bullies know that they are doing something that is not allowed, and that their actions will be addressed.

So many things about public education baffled me after coming from various jobs in corporations, non-profit organizations and government agencies.

Why did public education not fund its initiatives? In any marketing job I ever had, a goal undertaken got a budget and a staff assigned to it. 

Why did public education so poorly supervise workers? In the past my boss had done my job and knew how to support and encourage me to achieve our goals. Over two decades in schools I've received evaluations that rated me from fantastic to meh, often by people who had very little idea what my job actually entailed. I've seen great teachers let go in order to retain desperately bad teachers. I could go on, but I'm straying from my point.

The lens that helped me understand the sorry state of public education in the USA is this: it's actually free public babysitting.

Certainly many parents see it this way. That's why they feel no hesitation at keeping their children out of school for a variety of trivial reasons.*

Certainly many school board directors see it this way. They spend the majority of their time debating sports funding and programs, and will eliminate instructional or social worker positions without even a discussion.

When children miss school for any reason -- including actual illness or family emergency or enriching trip -- it  affects the education of every other child in their class.

The resource in shortest supply in any school is not actually money, it is time.

You can't make more of it, every minute of it is quite expensive when all the overhead has been figured in, and it's almost impossible to plan instruction effectively unless you know how much time is available. 

Here are some of the ways that student absences consume teacher time that could have been spent planning better, more effective ways to create engaging learning experiences for those present: calling to find out why the child has stopped showing up, talking to others seeking information about the missing student, collecting missed work, delivering missed instruction, revising plans for group learning or other activities to accommodate the absence, pulling together packets of work for planned vacations when parents notify in advance (would you be surprised to know that said packets of work are seldom returned completed?).

I set off a twitter storm of disapproval when I observed in the #bc530 early morning edu chat that many see us as providing free public babysitting. But I stand by my analysis. If education were the purpose, then continuity would matter.

If it's just daycare, then keeping your child home all day or routinely sending them two hours late is at parental convenience.

* Ok, here goes with a short list of reasons teachers have heard for why kids missed school when they weren't sick or seeing a doctor or dentist:

  • Had a hair/nail/tanning appointment for the prom that night (many districts require attendance on the day of the prom for this reason).
  • The family was thinking of buying a cow and went to look at it.
  • Child stayed up until 1:00am playing a video game with dad and his girlfriend.
  • Child had to accompany dad on a drug run (excuse me, "family emergency").
  • They were going to be late anyway so they just stayed home.
  • Their aunt claimed they had lice, but they didn't. (Incidentally, this is no longer a reason to miss school in Maine under our newest health protocols from the Dept. of Education.)
  • The after school babysitter had an appointment for her own child in another town.
  • They overslept (the whole day?).
  • Didn't feel like it.
  • Teenager was recently told that a man he has known all his life as a family friend is actually his real father.

Some of these activities are potentially educational, like going to see a man about a cow. But why couldn't they occur outside of school time? My broke parents often took us to museums, parks, beaches and libraries, but the time they took us out of school to go to Disneyland in the off-season was a once in a lifetime event.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Is it too late for me to move to Finland?

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