Education Empowerment

Punishments Won’t Solve Absenteeism

This op-ed was originally published in Daily Herald on February 17, 2024.

Can chronic absenteeism be solved through punishment? Not likely.

There has been ample evidence that punishing students and families for absenteeism doesn’t work.

A group devoted to solving chronic absenteeism, Attendance Works, said this, “Effective approaches are those that treat student absenteeism as a problem to be solved, not a behavior to be punished.”

The rise of chronic absenteeism

Since the pandemic, the nation has seen a surge in the number of students who are chronically absent. Chronic absenteeism is defined as any student who is absent 10% of the time. The number of students who fit this criteria in Utah has doubled, rising from 13% to 27% of students. In other words, 1 out of every 4 students is missing four weeks of school.

It is a problem, but many are looking for the wrong solutions.

The wrong solutions

Some school districts point to a 2017 law in Utah that eliminated judicial punishment for truancy, another name for chronic absenteeism. Their argument is that schools could no longer use the state courts to force families to send their children to school.

But, if we look at the data, the rise in chronic absenteeism didn’t occur until after the pandemic shut schools down. Attendance rates held steady in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Then there is a significant decrease in attendance in 2021 and 2022. Why?

Researchers have identified many causes which they have broken into three categories: barriers, aversion and disengagement.

Barriers include things like lack of transportation or severe illness for the child or parent. Aversion includes anxiety, academic struggles or unwelcoming school environment. Finally, disengagement includes boredom, lack of enriching activities or a lack of meaningful relationships at school.

Increased student absences become easier to explain with the rise of mental health issues in schools, increased student discipline problems and an intense political battle about curriculum and library books.

Does the threat of criminal charges solve these problems? Not at all. So there must be another way.

There is another way

Instead of punishing families and students, the nature of school needs to change.

Our current school model forces all kids to learn the same thing at the same time, expecting them to learn it at the same rate. While this works for some students, chronic absenteeism is evidence that it isn’t working for all students. Students who are advanced must slow down, while those who are behind must speed up.

Allow students to follow their passions. I saw this need as a teacher and principal. Some students thrived academically, while others struggled. Some students were great at art, while others had no interest. Some students needed time to move and be outside playing, while others were content to sit and read a book for extended periods of time.

Allow students to take classes for credit that aren’t offered by the school. Ballet class should count as a fine art or PE credit. Coding class should count as a computer science credit. Public schools are not the only place to find a “good” education.

They should and they can if we change the rules.

Some schools have this solved

There are schools where kids are excited to attend. These students are sad when summer comes, and it is happening for almost all of the students who go there.

What are these magical places? Microschools.

Although microschools have been around for over two decades, we have seen a rise in their popularity over the past few years.

These schools are creating different learning environments. Some spend the majority of their day outside, while others only meet two to three times a week. Many focus on the needs of the individual students, ignoring the traditional methods of standardized schooling.

These schools do not have problems with chronic absenteeism.

Rethink education

Schools need to stop blaming parents and students for chronic absenteeism. Utah shouldn’t be in the practice of bringing criminal charges against students and families when they obviously aren’t happy at school.

Schools need to take a deep look at their practices. There is something keeping students from attending school, and it isn’t a lack of punishment.