Jefferson Truancy Diversion Project: The Model for Nebraska's GOALS Initiative

The Omaha area GOALS Initiative was patterned after the Jefferson County Truancy Diversion Project in Kentucky. Crnkovich, presiding judge of the Douglas County Juvenile Court, said she would like to see the effort grow into something like the Jefferson County Truancy Diversion Project in Louisville, Ky.

The Truancy Court project implemented by truancy court Judge Joan Byer in Kentucky has been a crowing achievement of Judge Byer's career. Judge Byer described her role in the Kentucky program as using her unique abilities to "delve deeper into the causes of truancy...finding solutions to those problems.” Like Judge Byer, Judge Crnkovich sees herself as an energetic, enthusiastic advocate of children.

Kentucky's judicial approach to truancy is reported by the Judge to be a success and model for truancy prevention, but the hard data suggests the opposite.
  • Since it began in 1997, their attendance rates have ticked up 1% - from 92.6 in 1997 to 93.73 in 2009. 
  • The graduation rate appeared to improve during this same time frame, until an internal audit in 2006 found that for several prior years the dropout rate was significantly under-reported, 30% of dropouts not counted. For example, the graduation rate for Jefferson County in 2006 was reported as 74% but it was actually 65%, compare that to the graduation rate of 66% when the program began in 1997. 
  • The most significant gains in the graduation rate happened between 2006 and 2010 when the graduation rate was reported at 78.3%. During those same years the Jefferson county schools implemented significant educational reforms and initiatives. During the 2008-2009 school year four low performing high-schools were restructured making place for innovative educational options including one school who serves only males and one who serves females.
Despite some gains in attendance and graduation rates, Jefferson County continues to be #1 in juvenile crime – both violent and nonviolent. NAEP test results for Jefferson County students continue to be horrible. In 2009 23% of 8th graders were proficient in math and 26% proficient in reading.

Kentucky has made significant changes to their mandatory attendance law since the beginning of the project to address unintended consequences that landed too many student in the program. Some of the differences between Kentucky's policy and Nebraska:
  • In Kentucky the parents can excuse their kids by phone call or note up to 10 days per year for illness, family matters, etc. and then they can apply for an extension if their kid has a medical issue. 
  • They have a provision for kids who have a parent on active duty military who come home on leave where the kids can be absent for up to 10 days (not clear if that’s in addition to the other 10 days) to spend time with that parent. 
  • The truancy diversion program starts kicking in at 3 days of unexcused absences but really not invasive until about 6 days from what I read. Interventions start with home visits by the school social worker and progress to involving CPS and providing “appropriate services” to the family.
  • Plenty of parents have been prosecuted under the truancy law. They can be charged with educational neglect or “unlawful transaction with a minor” and get up to a year in jail or up to $500 in fines.

Understanding Truancy: The Scottish Council for Research in Education
Understanding Truancy: Links between attendance, truancy and performance

University of Glasgow: Scottish Education Department

This research was commissioned by the Scottish Office Education Department and carried out between April and December 1994. The three main aims were to explore the statistical relationship between attendance, truancy and pupil performance in examinations, to find out what impact truant behavior can have (not only on truants but also on ‘good attendees’, teachers and teaching)

*Below is a short review of the 42 page report, it represents what I found most interesting, and their overall summaries of the data they cataloged.

Specifically, the research questions addressed were:
  1. What statistical relationship is there between attendance, truancy and pupil performance? 
  2. What is the impact of truant behavior on those pupils who are not truants, on teachers and on teaching? 
  3. What factors influence pupils to play truant? 
Interesting Findings:

In every school but one, pupil absences were more likely to be ‘explained’ [excused] than ‘unexplained’ [unexcused].

Both primary and secondary teachers thought that if pupils missed school, the quality of their school work would drop. However, they believed that pupils’ school performance was also affected by personal and social factors. In general good attendees reported that they were not much affected when truants missed school, but a minority said it did have an effect on them. 

Statistical analysis of school attendance records for and Standard Grade results showed that as the level of absence increased, the level of Standard Grade award decreased. This was true for both math and English language, and almost equally for boys and girls. However, there was considerable variation among schools and the findings of this research cannot take into account factors other than absence which may affect attainment. 

Truants in secondary schools said they truanted because they were bored with school, and would rather be earning money at work. Some of the ‘good attendees’ said that if subjects were more interesting and more choice was available they thought the truanting pupils would be more likely to attend.

Primary school staff: Views of the nature of absences

Asked what kinds of absences they considered acceptable, all the head-teachers [building principals] interviewed cited genuine illness, family crises and family holidays, work experience and school trips or outings.

All the head teachers were also in agreement that the most important and unacceptable kind of absence was a clear decision on a pupil’s part not to come to school: truancy.

Interestingly, however, three head teachers also indicated that they personally thought it unacceptable that appointments with the doctor and dentist should keep pupils out of school, as they could with relative ease be made outside school time.

Teaching staff views tended to reflect those of the head teachers. All the guidance teachers interviewed cited pupil decisions not to come to school as the most important unacceptable kind of absence.

Attendance and Student Achievement

The idea that truancy is linked with low academic achievement was addressed by Raffe et al (Scottish Office, 1991a) who identified a ‘strong association’ between high truancy levels and poor academic results. However, Raffe and his team were careful to point out that low academic achievement could just as well cause truancy as be one of its effects.

The primary school data we have gathered on this issue come from interviews with head teachers and class teachers, and are essentially the opinions of those interviewed. In the secondary sector such information is complemented by analyses of the Standard Grade awards gained.

Primary school staff found it hard to respond to the question of what were the main effects of absence on truant pupils, discussion of the effects of truancy became in practice a discussion of the effects of frequent absence for whatever reason.

The most common view of the effects of absence was that learning was impaired, but teacher said that with a little effort a pupil could usually catch up fast. It was slight in comparison with the effect that absence was likely to have on a child’s social and life skills. Whether an absence would cause concern would also depend on the pupil’s ability and motivation.

“Truant” students ”(students with unexplained absences) who returned to school did not value education enough to put effort into catching up – in fact, they saw being pushed to catch up as a punishment – whereas children away for other reasons were eager to catch up and often had parents who pushed staff to give them extra work.

Classroom teachers indicated that student absences had a greater affect on them then the student. All the teachers of both primary stages involved in the research told us that when and if they experienced such absence, it caused or would cause problems for them. In particular, going over old material for the sake of returners made them feel frustrated, tailoring work to the needs of returned pupils took up extra time, and class management and routine was disrupted. Teachers expressed reveal how difficult they found it both to help the truant returners and to ensure they were fair to the good attendees.

Secondary School Findings:

‘Common sense suggests that there are links between attendance levels and pupils’ attainment.’ How far do statistics uphold common sense? For most of the pupils, explained absence is several times greater than unexplained absence. The exception is the ‘no award’ pupil group, for whom the reverse is true absence increases as the level of Standard Grade award decreases. This would be expected but, the data leave unresolved whether a causal link exists between them. The same pattern would be observed whether attainment was totally dependent on attendance or whether, conversely, attendance was totally dependent on attainment.

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 explained absence for more than 5.2% of the two terms, whereas 25% of those getting a grade 7 (Failing) were absent for less time than this, 4.8%. For unexplained 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 unexplained absence. In this respect they were model pupils. There is a big overlap in absence between pupils gaining different levels of award: absence is not the sole influence on attainment.

Absence would appear to have a greater bearing on attainment in mathematics than English; though attainment decreased as absences increased the study clearly showed that attendance is not the sole influence on attainment. The study showed that a link does exist between unexplained absence and performance in the direction anticipated, greater absence being associated with lower awards, but that it is not a strong link.

There is considerable variation in absence rates between pupils gaining identical Standard Grade awards. Although we cannot demonstrate this, there may also be variation in the extent to which individual pupils who are frequently absent would benefit from greater attendance at school.

In the section that follows, regression analysis is used to obtain more precise estimates of the nature of the link between absence and attainment. These too point to a weak overall connection, but also suggest this may arise from significant differences between schools.

*The study shows a weak overall connection between absence and attainment until they analyze truly excessive absences, over the average of 28.5 days in one school year. At that point there is a marked relationship between attainment and absence.

In a school year of 190, each 1.9 days of absence above the average of 28.5 days decreases the total of the English and mathematics grades gained by pupils by 0.1 of a grade. The quantitative conclusion to be drawn from the results on the relationship between attendance and attainment is that every one percentage point increase in absence is associated with a drop of 0.1 grade points in the combined English and mathematics Standard Grade score. Putting the conclusion this way is to assume a strict one-way relationship between attendance and attainment and, as has already been remarked, this is not likely to be the case.

Secondary Staff views of the nature of absences

Subject teachers stressed that the intensive nature of the current curriculum with its emphasis on continuous assessment and investigations made the issue of missed work more important than it might have been in the past. Now more than ever continuity of attendance was crucial to attainment, particularly in ‘sequential’ subjects such as math where understanding of new content was based on, and required, previous knowledge.

The majority of staff, including most of the head teachers, pointed out that if pupils had come from backgrounds in which education had a low value, they were likely to have a history of low motivation and application, perhaps over a period of years. Teachers felt that because of this alone such pupils’ academic performance suffered, but truancy would exacerbate the problem.

For subject teachers the additional work was caused by the increased strain on class management. Constant absences were disruptive and teachers found it difficult to plan lessons in the structured ways that were necessary for effective teaching. In addition, spending time with pupils who had missed school deliberately to go over ‘old material’ took up time which should have been spent moving on to other, planned work.

Effects of truancy on good attendees

The majority of good attendees felt that it was the truants themselves who were being affected the most. Subject teachers tended to agree.
Effects of truancy on the school as a whole

Most of the head teachers interviewed voiced awareness that if truancy became a problem in a school it would affect that school’s reputation adversely. The school’s image could suffer, and local people were likely to compare the school with others. However, asked how great a problem they thought truancy was, compared to other problems, only a minority of the secondary head teachers had experience of truancy levels in their schools which were sufficiently high to cause especial concern.

In these schools there had been complaints from local residents about the numbers of truant pupils ‘hanging around’ the area. These head teachers’ worries about truancy as a school problem were accompanied by a fear that statistics on attendance levels in schools would be used as ‘league tables’, which, the head teachers felt, would ignore the factors affecting the levels of attendance in their particular schools.

In Summary:

The statistical analyses made it clear that absence from school and performance in Standard Grade were related, but also cautioned against interpreting this to mean that absence brings about poor performance. Many other factors must be taken into account, such as social background and general ability are two of these.

Although data gathered from staff and pupils reveal a perception that the major result of missing school was indeed impaired academic performance with its consequences of damaged career prospects, the issue was not considered to be one of simple cause and effect. From the teachers’ point of view, truancy meant extra work, disrupted planning and frustration. Neither they nor the ‘good attender’ pupils felt that other pupils in the class were much affected by others’ truancy.

Head teachers felt that if truancy was a problem in a school its public image would suffer.
There were large variations among the schools and that at the level of individual institutions the picture was always more complex than a summary can reveal.

Read the entire study here: