This OpEd appeared in the New York Times on September 2, 2007. It better than most articles you will read on the subject of education and truancy, cuts through all the statistical chaffe. It concludes that we are in the midst of a national truancy crisis. In addition to the obvious tendency to levy blame, it also proposes a responsible way ahead....
By HAROLD O. LEVY and KIMBERLY HENRY
Here's a math problem only truant officers will get right: How is it possible for many school districts in America to report both that average daily attendance is better than 90 percent and that almost 30 percent of students miss a month of school annually?
(a) Averages hide underlying data. While a few schools have nearly perfect attendance, most have a serious truancy problem.
(b) Elementary schools are large and have high attendance, while middle and high schools have smaller enrollments and miserable attendance. Large numbers of dropouts in the upper grades hide mass absences because enrollments there are lower.
(c) That 90 percent average daily attendance doesn’t mean the same 10 percent of children are out all the time; it could mean 30 percent are chronically absent, only on different days.
Sadly, the answer is:
(d) All of the above.
The high average daily attendance statistics reported by school districts camouflage a real truancy problem. In 2005, for example, the average daily attendance rate reported at the five middle schools in the Hernando County School District in Florida was 91.9 percent. But 17.6 percent of the students met the definition of “chronic truancy” (21 or more days of unexcused absence during the school year). Average daily attendance can even obscure a problem at an individual school. In the same school year, 28.7 percent of students at Madison Middle School in Dade County, Fla., were designated chronic truants; however, the average daily attendance rate reported was 88.4 percent. Attendance statistics can be used to paint vastly different pictures.
When calculated properly, the national high school graduation rate is appallingly low. According to the Urban Institute, only 68 percent of students who enter the ninth grade graduate with a high school diploma. Students generally don’t decide one day to drop out; it is a long process that often begins with the occasional unexcused, casual absence.
And America is awash in casual truancy. In New York City, the attendance tracking system routinely catches fully 30 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students in its grip each year. That means that almost a third of all students are out a month or more.
New York is not alone. Defining a “chronic truant” as a student who banks 21 or more days of unexcused absences in one year, Florida reports that 14.8 percent of high school students meet this criterion. In Denver, where chronic truancy is defined at a much lower level (10 such days per year), 23 percent of eighth graders and 35 percent of 12th graders in 2005 were classified as chronic truants. During the 2005-6 school year in the Milwaukee Public Schools, 32 percent of elementary school students, 46 percent of middle school students and 74 percent of high school students were classified as habitual truants (five or more unexcused absences in one semester).
Skipping school has been going on since biblical times. Talmudic sages originally placed the obligation to educate children on the families, particularly on fathers to educate their sons. This system did not work well because many children were orphaned, neglected, born into poverty or simply avoided instruction. The Talmud records that Joshua ben Gamla, a high priest in the Sanhedrin in 64 A.D., issued a decree requiring universal schooling for all boys starting at age 6. The age of truancy had begun.
Truancy has no single cure. Students skip school because of illness, to work, to care for younger siblings or infirm grandparents, because they have become disaffected or for more nefarious reasons — drugs and other criminal conduct. Solutions will need to take into account all these motivations. Denver has one of the more aggressive truancy programs, yet in 2004-5, only 4 percent of the most serious elementary school truants received any intervention beyond a phone call or letter. This is particularly alarming given that the most effective strategies are likely to involve prevention and early intervention rather than late targeting of only the most chronic truants. Unfortunately, almost nothing is done for early-stage, casual truants.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires consistent statewide reporting of truancy, is up for reauthorization. And in 2004 the Department of Education held the first National Truancy Prevention Conference. But the department has neither addressed states’ inconsistent data-gathering nor established a nationwide data collection system. Outside the context of drug abuse prevention, the department doesn’t even have an office that monitors truancy.
Until we stop relying on the myth that average daily attendance is meaningful, we will remain in denial. A clear national definition of a truant needs to be created, and all schools should report accurate statistics based on this definition to their state departments of education. And schools and communities must be held accountable for achieving and maintaining low truancy rates. Congress should require a true census of the truants and then finance the cure.
Harold O. Levy, a former New York City schools chancellor, is managing director at an investment firm. Kimberly Henry is an assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University.