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Sunday, January 20, 2013

How Many Absences Are Acceptable?

With approximately 70 days of school completed, how many absences are acceptable? Three, one, none? How many absences begin to effect learning? How many of those absences are the teacher's responsibility?

Thus far, four of my cherubs have been absent twelve or more days. One of those has been absent 21 days. One-third of my students have missed 10% or more of all school days. Last year one of my students missed more than one-third of all school days. Of course since learning is merely measured by passing an exam, he was promoted after passing the summer school test. At our school, there are students who are absent when it rains. Students who regularly fail to attend school on Fridays. Students who think it is acceptable to stay home on their birthdays and students who are absent the day before a vacation begins and/or the day after one ends. Some students and their families extend vacations so that five days off, say for Christmas, becomes 10 days off. And I'm pretty sure most teachers have experienced those students for whom summer vacation extends well past Labor Day.

I've tried to encourage good attendance by buying lunch or prizes for those kids who have perfect attendance. I've conferenced with those who have poor attendance and tried to motivate them to come to school with regularity. I've called parents. I've brought it up during parent-teacher conferences. I've also tried to help the frequently absent keep up academically by working with them at lunchtime or after-school but it is not the same. We don't have enough time and moreover, the students and I are both resentful during make-up sessions. After all, I've already taught the material while they went out of their way to not be responsible for the missed material.

Our school has a policy of paying home visits to students with poor attendance. In general, it doesn't help. By the time a student and his or her frequently complicit parent(s) have decided that it is acceptable to miss 10-30% of all school days, there is little that cajoling can do to improve attendance.

Besides poor student attendance is, no doubt, MY fault. Not exactly sure how, but I am certain that in the current education climate the teacher is definitely to blame. The poor state test scores of these "phantom" students will fall on my shoulders as I am labeled "ineffective" via my value add measure (VAM). A teacher's job is difficult enough when the students show-up but when they don't even show up, what are we supposed to do then?

I used to have compassion for students with many absences. I worried about their health. I was concerned their parents were depressed and kept them home for company. Now that I'm held responsible for student test scores, I'm just angry because a day out of school means a day of lost learning, which will eventually show up on some exam somewhere. Pissed-off and without any ability to do something about it: that combination seems unlikely to engender a healthy student-teacher relationship.