Saturday, May 14, 2011

School Absences a (Major) Factor

Despite being one of the top states in terms of education, Massachusetts still has many communities with schools in serious need of improvement. Below is MCAS related data from six of the lowest performing communities in the state. Percentages are the combined 'needs improvement' and 'fail' rates for each section on the 2010 MCAS.

 Brockton Chelsea Holyoke Lawrence Lowell Lynn

There are many factors contributing the low scores of these communities. The most significant common denominator is the poverty rate. In these communities, the proportion of children (under 18) living under the poverty line ranges from 19.4% to 41.7%. As a direct result, the low income populations in the schools systems is as much as 87.3%. Additional factors include large English language learner (ELL) and limited English proficiency populations. Seventy-seven percent of Lawrence's school population, for example, is ELL. Poverty and language barriers are serious challenges that the listed communities must face in attempting to meet the standards set by No Child Left Behind. 

While communities like Holyoke and Chelsea struggle, there are many Massachusetts cities whose school systems are excelling in terms of standardized testing. Below are the combined 'needs improvement' and 'fail' rates on the 2010 MCAS  from five of the highest performing communities in Massachusetts. 

 Andover Concord Sudbury Wellesley Weston

The most evident difference between the high and the low performing communities is socioeconomic status. The poverty rate for people under 18 in these communities is under 4 percent as the median income for families is between $135,000 to $200,000. Also, the ELL population for the high performing communities is under 9 percent and is as low as 2.4 percent in Sudbury. 

Many have considered the role of SES and language barriers in academic success; these factors have, at times, dominated discussions around education reform. What has not been discussed as a potential solution to low academic achievement is increasing overall school engagement, but more importantly increasing school attendance. There is a camp who does not believe that factors such SES do not have bearing on teachers' ability to effectively teach. What about school absence? 

Good versus bad teachers aside, if students do not actually attend school it does not matter how "effective" their teacher is. Make up work can be given, but students who miss excessive days or hours of schooling lose out on the instruction time that goes with each lesson. As a result, certain gaps in knowledge would lead to failed tests and poor grades and standardized test scores. A significant difference between schools that do well and schools that do not is the average number of days that their students miss. Below is a comparison of average schools absences between the high and low performing communities. 

CityAvg. AbsencesCityAvg. Absences

From this we see that students in the lower performing communities miss more days of school on average than students in high performing communities. If we were to look only at high school, the data would be much worse. Students at Holyoke High School for instance tend to miss almost 20 days of school per year while students at Wellesley High miss seven. 

A high priority for school systems, parents and students should be finding a way to decrease the number of school days missed. Potential ways to do this could include providing mental and physical health services within the school, increasing parental involvement, and enforcing stricter penalties for missing excessive class time. Teachers and principals cannot control whether a student comes to school, so schools systems could look to the city and state for assistance with their school attendance policies. The low academic achievement of students in low income communities is complex but there are aspects of the issue that can be specifically targeted. While missing school due to illness is understandable, schools and parents should seek to decrease the number of unnecessary school absences to ensure that students receive as much instructional time possible. This is essential to increasing academic success.

**All data take from


  1. As a high school teacher, I can 100% verify the fact that attendance is THE biggest challenge facing public schools. At private schools, miss a certain number of days and your child is kicked out/you lose the money you spent. There is not that same impetus for good attendance in public schools such as the one in which I work. DC public schools rank as some of the lowest performing in the country, and I would say that the average absences in my class/at my school are about 20-30+ PER SEMESTER. The majority of my students only make it to school 2-3 days per week. And then I am judged to be a good or bad teacher without any consideration of how many days of the year I actually TAUGHT each student. I'm sorry the majority of my students are behind grade level. But based on the number of days they have attended school, it would most likely take them 2-3 years to have attended a year's worth of 9th grade.

  2. I agree 100%. Even if you're in the camp that doesn't believe that societal factors (SES) affect academic achievement, it is hard to dispute the fact that excessive absences do affect your ability to do well. If your students are only coming to school 2-3 days per week, it would impossible for any of them to fully grasp any of the units/subjects you teach.

    I think people who come up with these ratings scales forget that students are people, not robots, who will do what they want in terms of coming to school, doing homework, trying.

  3. At my public high school, if you had an unexcused absence in one or more of your classes, your parents got a pre-recorded phone call at the end of the day (although not every teacher took attendance everyday). Also, if you were absent during the school day, you were not allowed to attend after school activities/sports practice that day. I think we were allowed 4 unexcused absences, and 8 absences total per year (including college visits, sick days, etc). I'm not really sure what the consequences were, though. Expulsion? Parent/teacher/principal meeting? Flogging?

    Unfortunately, one of my teachers often confused me with another girl in her class who skipped a few times. So my mom got few undeserved phone calls and I got a few undeserved lectures.

    I think a lot of public schools wait too long to try to motivate students. I don't want to say that high school is "too late," but it's a fact that it's easier to form good habits at a younger age. In the Freakonomics documentary, they did a semester long study at a high school where they rewarded good grades with ca$h money. It didn't work.

  4. ^^Your public high school was a lot more stringent than what is typically found in more urban areas. At Lynn English, we were allowed 10 absences PER QUARTER and 5 4th quarter senior year. If you reached that many, you automatically failed all your classes. While the punishment is good, why should you ever be able to miss up to 35, 40 days of school per year and still be promoted to the next grade??

    Motivating kids early and often is definitely key.