Friday, September 30, 2011

Nanny State In: Mom and Dad Out

Is Nebraska's "school attendance" focus part of a national trend? Absolutely, check out this MSNBC story that sees no fault in programs that are the culmination of the "nanny state". The MSNBC article starts out, "Need help getting out of bed to get to school on time?... Students are being urged to sign up for an automated wake-up call." The state now provides kids with two meals a day at school, wake-up calls in the morning, and after-school homework help and recreation. Who needs a mom or dad?

With American test scores lagging behind other industrialized nations, it seems our state run education systems are blaming every external culprit they can find. Considerable incentives from Washington D.C. are driving the next big push is to have "every kid" in school "every day"! Media sources on board with the federal education agenda to "Race to the Top" throw in "facts" like this one, "What we know is, missing as few as three days of school is strongly predictive of lower achievement and missing 10 days of school is predictive of dropping out," This statement is outlandish!

The "evidence" to support this statement is hardly settled. A thourough study out of Glasgow Scottland, (Understanding Truancy: Links between attendance, truancy and performance) concluded "that low academic achievement could just as well cause truancy as be one of its effects."

Within a grade level the range of absence is large. It is so wide that, for example, 25% of pupils who gained a grade 1 (A) in mathematics had a record of excused absence for more than 5.2% of the year, whereas 25% of those getting a grade 7 (Failing) were absent for less time than this, 4.8%. For unexcused absence this feature is, if anything, more striking. Generally, a quarter of all pupils getting low grades (5, 6 and 7) in mathematics did not miss a single day's schooling through unexcused absence, in this way they were "model students".

Nebraska mom, Jessica Freeman, responded to the MSNBC article this way, "I don't believe for a sec that kids can't learn outside of the structure of school. And I also don't believe it's wrong for kids to miss school for an extended vacation. Why do families have to completely submit their lives to the school's strict schedule when the schools keep expecting more and more of their time? Infuriating."

Jessica's take on the link between attendance and education may run counter to the accepted "wisdom", but she may not be so far off. The article goes on to state that "even affluent suburban districts can see problems when parents pull out their students for extended vacations or let their children stay home for reasons other than illness."

Affluent districts like Millard perhaps? Are Nebraska lawmakers, who overwhelmingly voted to put similar policies in place here in Nebraska, overlooking Millard district's 98% graduation rate? What about their outstanding state and national test scores that put the district's high schools in the top 25% in the country and competitive internationally? Why should the state concern themselves when a family chooses to remove their kids from school for family travel or other worthwhile experiences based on the parent's best judgement with education outcomes like that?

It was in part because of the great variance between schools and student populations that the Glasgow study found it difficult to make firm conclusions about the connection between attendance and performance that could be applied evenly across the education spectrum. Despite the evidence in our own community to support the Glasgow conclusions our state is pushing forward with plans to insert state agencies deeper into family life. Under Nebraska's new "plan" these "interventions" begin when a student has missed five days of school for any reason!

The Glasgow study further concluded that there was a "weak overall connection between absence and attainment (grade earned) until they analyze truly excessive absences, over the average of 28.5 days in one (190 day) school year." At that point it wasn't surprising to find a marked relationship between grades earned and attendance. Researchers concluded that there were "significant differences between schools and external conditions in the student life" such as social background and general ability. The "extent to which individual pupils who are frequently absent would benefit from greater attendance at school could not be quantified."

Nebraskans need to reawaken to their freedom loving principals and separate themselves from agendas more suited to the liberal northwest. Despite the fact that Nebraska "common sense" would say that five missed days in one school year is hardly "excessive", or warranting "state interventions", our state lawmakers share Washington State's goal to "intervene early" to "determine why students are absent and then find solutions." Sound noble, right? After all, "Usually there’s a lot going on in the family." But wait, this is where the "nanny state" enters in and the door hits "mom and dad" on the way out.


  1. The problem with statements like, "missing as few as three days of school is strongly predictive of lower achievement" is that if administrators TRULY believe this, then they must follow through and eliminate any school-sponsored activity that removes students from the classroom. If attendance is TRULY that important, then we cannot excuse the football team when they have to travel out of town for a game, the speech team when they need to go to Districts or choir members who qualify for All-State music. After all, all these students miss significantly more than 3 days of school when they participate in these events.

    Administrators cannot make statements saying that kids need to be in their seats EVERY SINGLE DAY and then support extracurricular activities that take them out of those seats. They have to realize that this is a double-edge sword and they can't have it both ways. Either it is important to be in school, or it is important to be a well-rounded individual with a variety of interests that sometimes takes kids outside of the classroom.

    Personally, I'd hire a kid with a plethora of extracurricular activities WAY before I'd hire the kid with perfect attendance.

  2. Gene SiadekOctober 03, 2011

    FYI - Finland's schools score consistently at the top of world rankings, yet the pupils have the fewest number of class hours in the developed world.