Friday, September 23, 2011

The Whole Picture: The Press Still Getting it Wrong

Written in response to an article published by WOWT, "Truancy, A Parents Concern". 

The author, Gary Smollen, reported that the law requires school districts to intervene in the family life of students when the student misses five absences, of any kind, in one quarter. The truth is the law requires school districts to define "excessive absenteeism" within the parameters set by the legislature, which are that "the number of absences in the policy [for excessive absenteeism] shall not exceed five days per quarter or the hourly equivalent. School districts may use excused and unexcused absences for purposes of the policy.”

Meaning that if the school district chooses they could set the definition of "excessive absenteeism" as being absent five days in one quarter without excuse, which everyone would agree is "excessive absences". Unfortunately, many districts in the learning community have decided to make that definition far more strict, for example, in Millard Public Schools, the district administrators and School Board have gone well beyond the required minimum threshold and instead defined "excessive absences" as being absent five days, for any reason, in one year.

How many people really think that five absences in one school year could be reasonably considered "excessive"? Yet most students and parents throughout the learning community will have their family life scrutinized with face to face conferences, evaluation, and investigations when they are only five days absent in one school year. Even the one parent quoted in the story that supports the concept for the law didn't see the common sense in equating excused and unexcused absences.

There are certainly isolated areas of concern, in certain schools and districts where absences are truly excessive and have in part lead to failing students, but this certainly isn't the case in every school in the state or in the Omaha Learning Community. For example, Millard’s average daily attendance is 96 percent, and the 21,980 Nebraska students missed more than 20 days of school (all absences combined) represents only 5% of the student body state wide. This can hardly be considered a crisis.

What parents really need to understand is that the new truancy law does not address truancy directly, at least not in the classic sense. Instead it has created a whole new class of delinquent behavior called “excessive absenteeism”, mandated that schools address it early and aggressively, and then to encourage they follow through with this the primary change was made to the “criminal” threshold for truant behavior to include all absences, excused and unexcused, thus placing significant pressure on school districts to disregards the significant difference between the two in their district policies.

What we naturally think of as a truant is a student, one who is absent without permission, is something we all want to address. Like the parent quoted, I too want parents to be more involved in their children’s education. I don't believe Nebraska's law addresses the right "problem". The agenda that has pushed this law through the legislature believes that what is best for children is to be in school every day that school is in session. 

Proponents believe that by throwing everyone into the same box for the seemly noble goal of reaching “at-risk” youth, the experts will be able to assess each family situation and root out those kids headed for trouble before they get into trouble. You could call it preventative criminalization, make everyone suspect, and thereby eliminating "suspects".

I believe that we need to repeal and revise this law now before any more families find themselves victims of the unintended consequences of poorly vetted legislation. The next step should be to do some independent research on how school attendance impacts educational outcomes among students in our state, and how it differs from district to district. Before we decide to legislate attendance policy from the state legislature or even the Omaha Learning Community, we should have the whole picture.

My own independent research of the topic has revealed that the very same studies sited by the "expert" who have pushed this law, show that causes of truancy and the affects of attendance on educational outcomes overall is murky.

A research study into the causes and effects of "truancy" in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, by Maurice J. Tyerman, published in May 2011, studied 137 truants charged at Court, and a comparison between forty representative truants and a group of non-truant children, revealed that adverse home circumstances and a lack of satisfaction in home or school are probably the most important conditions of truancy.”

A more comprehensive study done in Glasgow Scotland had similar findings. This study showed a weak overall connection between absence and academic performance, the connection only became striking when the students missed excessively. In a school year of 190, each 1.9 days of absence above the average of 28.5 days decreased the total of the English and mathematics grades gained by pupils by 0.1 of a grade.

The faultiness of connecting educational outcomes so directly to school attendance was demonstrated in this same study when they found that that “25% of pupils who gained a grade 1 (A) in mathematics had a record of explained absence for more than 5.2% in one year, whereas 25% of those getting a grade 7 (Failing) were absent for less time than this, 4.8%. Even more striking was that generally, a quarter of all pupils getting low grades (5, 6 and 7) in mathematics did not miss a single day’s schooling and in this respect they were model pupils.” There is a big overlap in absence between pupils gaining different levels of award (grades) and it was clear that absence is not the sole influence on academic achievement.

Certainly there is data in numerous studies that shows a link between attendance and grades but this report states in its summary that though “the statistical analyses made it clear that absence from school and performance in grades were related" it also "cautioned against interpreting this to mean that absence brings about poor performance." The study names other more important factors in academic success such as parental involvement, social background, the pupil’s general ability and motivation, and other factors to do with how well the student is engaged by the curriculum.

Our state legislature has taken the assertions of “experts” with an agenda without doing their own independent research. Based on this they have made radical and precipitous changes to our state statute that has resulted in serious abuses of power, and tragic intrusions into family life. With the passage of LB 463 and the creation of the Superintendent's plan to "improve attendance" it is in line to become a whole lot worse.

It is a miscarriage of justice to allow legitimate excused absences to be used as grounds for legal action against a student and their family and even more egregious to begin treating children and families like delinquents and criminals before any actual crime has been committed. Five absences in one year is far from “excessive” and is most certainly not delinquent behavior.

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