What are the underlying causes of student absenteeism? | The Chalkboard Project

What are the underlying causes of student absenteeism?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 Shawn Daley

The Oregonian recently concluded a series, “Empty Desks," which chronicled the distressing rate of student absenteeism in Oregon schools. I appreciated their investigation, because I know that even a miracle worker teacher can’t do much unless her students are in class. Yet when I finished reading the series, I wished there had been greater exploration of the underlying causes of student absenteeism.  

A recent visit with my friend Michael Lindblad, a state Social Studies teacher of the year, crystallized one possibility. Mike is an infectiously enthusiastic educator, one whose students regularly say changed their lives. But when I saw Mike this time, he lamented that he was starting to see kids slip through the cracks because he didn’t get to know them anymore. Mike’s classroom size has mushroomed to between 45-50 students a class. In that environment, how can a perceptive teacher like Mike engage enough with students?   

An overlooked dimension of the classroom experience is the interpersonal relationship between student and teacher. If my teacher knows me, by name and interest, it is much harder to disappear because that teacher will ask where I was and care that I wasn’t there. When Mike, who didn't flinch when his classes crept from 20 students to 40 plus, said he was feeling the pinch, it made me realize we needed to rethink the relational impact of expanding class sizes. In the Oregonian series, they portray the efforts of Clackamas High School staffers to keep kids in class, which I agree deserve applause. Yet those Herculean efforts would be less needed if teachers were given greater ability to develop a rapport with a smaller cadre of kids. The articles suggest that teachers should not be burdened with worrying about absenteeism. But maybe they are a better front line defense for schools, if they had fewer children per class to engage.

Yet, class size alone is not the answer, especially in the lower grades. The “Empty Desks” series thoughtfully investigated the ways in which younger students weren’t in school either, and their classes were often much smaller. In those cases, it’s a parent issue, and I wish the series probed the way in which the greater community perceives schools. The articles talked about how nonchalantly parents (whose voices are notably absent) would pull their kids from school for hunting trips or vacation in the middle of the year. Having experienced both of these occurrences as a high school teacher, I’d have loved to see what parents, when pressed, would answer as to why that’s okay. 

A fascinating study would ascertain how many people in American society feel as if school failed them, and how that impacts their outlook on whether their kids really need to be in class. We often dismiss the history of how schools have not provided equal opportunity to citizens based on race and class, and our willful ignorance of this shameful legacy causes us to miss a key reason why certain parents disdain the school system. Couple this with constant attacks on brick and mortar institutions in media, can we be surprised that parents (and by default, their children) keep away from places repeatedly bemoaned as “failing?” 

And I’m also not going to let teachers off the hook completely. My stepson is a sophomore in the same district as Clackamas High, and I have watched his appreciation for class waver based on his instructors’ cognizance of how a student in 2014 is far different than one from 2004. Whether it’s YouTube or Snap Chat, Facebook or Netflix, my son and his friends have ways to engage themselves if a teacher isn’t going to. Critics may counter that kids need to just “pay attention,” but I think that is an outdated response. Our generation created this brave new technological world, but we didn’t fully contemplate the impact it would have on the development of youth. Today’s teachers need to be well versed on what competes for student attention, both the what and the how, and shape their methodology accordingly to keep kids in their rooms. 

The Oregonian did us all a favor by starting this conversation about student absenteeism. I don’t fault them for not being able to cover every aspect, because I think the issue of absenteeism requires an even deeper look than a 5-day series. If we’re truly going to address it, we need a much more comprehensive examination of our collective psyche on education.

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