Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Children cannot possibly learn when they are missing 20 or more days

Parents have been contacting their senators to ask that kids with excused absences NEVER fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. The communication between parents and state officials is uncovering a major disconnect between what some parents believe is acceptable in the course of childhood, and what Nebraska lawmakers have determined is harmful to children.

I've written earlier of comments made by Nebraska Education Commissioner Rodger Breed and other state educators who believe that there is NEVER good reason to miss school other than the occasional serious documented illness. Governor Heineman has repeatedly said that if "kids aren't in school they can't learn", and there is an assumption being made by the legislative body that kids who miss 20 days of school or more can't possibly learn!

This idea, of course, is foreign to many parents of excellent students who occasionally travel during the school year with their children, have chronically sick kids who miss school often, or have children who are very involved in extra-curricular pursuits outside the school curriculum. Many students maintain excellent grades because of the things that pull them away from school from time to time and the excellent parents who make sure that excellence in school is the objective.

My own honor roll student received his best marks in school the year he missed the most school. That year he missed 24.5 days of school due to a combination of ordinary sick days, family travel, and taking advantage of a unique opportunity to participate in an outdoor summer theater which started rehearsals late in May. The debate that choices like mine has caused to rage in Nebraska has been anything but civil. In the comment page of the Lincoln Journal Star, one reader made the comment that parents who travel with their kids when school is in session are "immoral"!

It seems that many state officials share this belief. In response to a correspondence from a Nebraska father, who wrote senators expressing his concern that the current "truancy" law reaches too far into the lives of Nebraska families, Sen. Gwen Howard responded by expressing her sympathies for sick children but said, "I am not as sympathetic for students who hit the 20 day limit because of family vacations or other trips. Children cannot possibly learn when they are missing 20 or more days without any consequences."

Nebraska State officials are using statistics that show a 30 point gap in standardized tests between perfect attenders and those who miss 20 or more days to support this belief and forward their agenda to put all students in this group under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. It comes as no surprise to me that this statistic is manipulated to deny the fact that among the group who miss 20 days or more, there are kids who score as well as kids with perfect attendance. By the nature of statistical data there are A, B, and C students in the mix, and the obvious question must be asked, since when is it a crime to be a C student? Are there not C students among those with near perfect attendance as well?

My own independent research of the link between school attendance and school attainment shows that the affects of attendance on educational outcomes overall is murky. A comprehensive study done in Glasgow, Scotland, found that the connection between absence and academic performance only became striking when the students missed excessively (over 28.5 days). "In a school year of 190 days, 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 only 0.1 of a grade". Not earth-shattering!

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 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 were model pupils in this respect.”

Certainly there is data in numerous studies that shows a link between attendance and grades, but it is important that we not make the mistake of concluding that correlation is causation. Researchers across the nation have been careful to point out that low academic achievement could just as well cause, truancy as be one of its effects.

Studies aside, it is evident is that the Nebraska school attendance law is an effort to reshape a parenting paradigm that has long accepted that parents have a natural right to make such judgments on behalf of their children. The law bypasses local school district policy, which in many cases excuses absences related to "family travel" and honors a parent's natural right to make these judgments. It requires schools to ignore their own school district policies and refer all students to law enforcement at 20 days of absence, regardless of the individual circumstances of the student and family.

The Nebraska Family Forum has asked for a simple, common sense fix to the law. Allow local school districts to craft attendance policy with the aid of elected school boards and the input of the communities who fund and govern them; and honor that policy by ensuring that kids whose absences are excused by school authorities NEVER fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement for truancy.

I would ask those who support Nebraska's current "truancy" law, which is more "immoral"? To usurp the natural rights and responsibilities of ALL Nebraska parents in order to have oversight in every case that may lead to delinquent behavior, OR to allow parents to choose whether or not it is appropriate for their child to participate in club sports, take a ski trip, or stay home an extra day to recover from the flu?


  1. I'm afraid I am on the legislator's side on this one. I think it is important for parents to impress on their children that school is very important and if they're allowed to stay out of school for vacations or just because they don't feel like going, they are getting the wrong message.

    1. The problem with these sorts of platforms are they rely on "truisms" that few people would argue against, but at the same time there is a suggestion that parents somehow believe differently or find it impossible to instill the best values in their children or consider most fully the best balance and use the best judgements for our own children's futures.

      It is very dangerous to pass laws upon such over simplified generalizations that, in fact, prevent parents from providing the best care to kids while politicians and government officials and bureaucrats perpetuate a false notion that if it weren't for them, we parents would choose to fail our own kids - either through our hopeles ignorance or willful planning.

      You may choose to not be offended by such baseless allegations, but don't think most parents should appreciate that harmful perspective.

    2. I agree that it's important for parents to teach their children the value of school. I DO NOT think it's the legislature's job to take over being the parents.

      That's the issue.

      As a parent, I want the right to decide if a funeral is important or not. I want the right to decide if rebuilding homes in Haiti is a good experience for my child.

      The schools are going to threaten me with court if I don't skip my child's life enriching experiences? I don't think so. I'm even outraged that the government wants doctors notes for every medical absence.

      If you would like to turn your child over to the nanny state, go ahead. I'll retain my parental rights, thanks.

  2. A favorite quote: "the amount of freedom to which one is entitled is irrevocably connected to the amount of friendom he is willing to allow his neighbore."

    So while you may agree with the Senator, I hope you would agree that it is not the appropraite for school board policies (established through local democratic processes) that allow occational family travel to be bypassed by state law.

  3. I like that statement, Anonymous at 1:06 p.m.

    Anonymous at 12:44, I don't know any responsible parents who allow their children to miss school "because they don't feel like going."

    But I know many responsible parents who view school as a part of life, not the point of life. These parents emphasize regular, prepared school attendance to their kids. But they also cautiously keep them home from school when they have the sniffles, believing that one day home to get ahead of the illness is better than pushing it and ending up with a full-blown illness for 3 days. They sometimes allow an extra day for recuperation after an illness. And they choose carefully various occasions when the benefits of missing school outweigh the drawbacks. And they always make sure their children keep up with their work.

    If you feel it is important that a child never miss school for any reason, then ensure that your child never misses school for any reason. But there are occasions when my children's lives will be enriched by the activities they engage in when missing school, and I beg you to hold your judgment and your willingness to use government to force your ideal on my well-rounded children, when they maintain their straight-A grades and are in no way on the path to juvenile delinquency or adult uselessness.

    The main point of the legislation that we're supporting is: if parents in a school district have worked with their school board to establish a policy for what is excused and what isn't, the state should never be able to investigate those students who meet their district's standards. It is wrong to refer kids who've played by the rules to law enforcement, most especially when they've been ill, but also when they've been responsibly pursuing enriching life experiences.

  4. To the anonymous who wrote first - No responsible parent allows their child to stay home because they "just don't feel like going", but to persecute a child and his parents because the child has an extended illness, which by the way, could be a mental illness as well, or to deny a family time to grieve from an death, etc., is just plain wrong. I don't understand why you or anyone else could not understand this. No one is asking that truancy be allowed, we are asking that common sense and decency be allowed in the truancy laws. How would you feel if your child was chronically ill and you had to be investigated by the county attorney and go to court for nothing more than being caught up in a poorly written law? Bet you'd change your mind.