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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.


  1. I hear you! I also have several students that miss school at the drop of a hat. It always seems to be the ones that need to be in school the most that are always absent. You're absolutely right that these absences will affect our VAM scores. It's not right. We can't make the kids care if the parents don't.

    I'll sometimes have parents e-mail me asking for makeup work for weeks worth of absences. As if I can staple five worksheets together and say, "Here you go!" That's just not what any good teacher does. When kids miss school they can never really make it up.

  2. That's my class this year. I have never had so many students absent regularly. If I have 100% on any given day, it is a miracle! And of course, it's always the same kids. And don't get me started on early dismissals. That too, is at an all-time high. And guess who's getting picked up early? The kids that are absent all the time!It is so frustrating!

  3. This is a much bigger story than you realize even though you know all about it! It is one of the truly unjust weak links in VAM. I'm spreading it around. Stand strong, you are not alone.

  4. I had a long conversation about absences with my high school students this week. The general consensus was that up to 20 absences over the course of a 40 week school year was acceptable. They felt that 21-30 absences was borderline, but that more than 30 absences became problematic.

    And yes, during the conversation some students did find a way to blame teachers for their absences. I hear the same thing from parents, too.

    Our top level administrators are especially fond of blaming teachers: "If you were a good teacher your students would never want to miss your class."


  5. I teach at an alternative school for students who have dropped out of school and have come back to try to finish their diplomas. Needless to say, many have huge barriers - they all already dropped out once. Absenteeism is rampant - it is normal to have about 60% attendance in any class on any day. And yes - it is our fault! We get that constantly - that if our classes were more "engaging" students wouldn't want to miss them! Never mind that students are either of the "miss school when it rains" variety or they genuinely can't get to school due to childcare issues, health problems, lack of money for bus fare, etc. (Not that I'm sure I always know which is which!) Nope - our fault! The district is threatening to shut our school down for poor performance - absenteeism among other things - and the solution admin comes up with is to threaten and harangue the teachers. Oh, and re-admit students who have been dropped because they stopped coming to school last semester. (One student got re-admitted after absencing out five times!) Why would we do that? Well, "retention" is a performance indicator too, it seems!

  6. parents are to be blamed in most cases.and this is starts from them, firstly !

  7. I'm feeling your pain! I found your post after googling for the number of acceptable absences in a school year. This year I already have several students who have missed over 20 days, and it's only November! How are these kids ever going to be college and career ready when they can't even handle something as simple as showing up?

  8. i just want to say i am a parent of a 5th grader who 2 date has 13 absences. i am not lazy he is not trying to deliberately fail. he has severe allergies and asthma and the winter weather plays havoc with his health.he has been absent a lot since kindergarten and struggles tremendously in school as a result of his absences. while i understand the viewpoint written here i would ask you to remember there are situations out of a parents control sometimes so dont generalize and lump us as you educators also would not like to be generalized about