Truancy, Family Barriers to Attendance, and School Norms
At some public high schools in DC, most of the students were chronically truant, with 15 or more unexcused absences during the 2009-10 school year, according to a recent report by the DC Inspector General.
We recently evaluated a pilot intervention to combat chronic truancy, called the Case Management Partnership Initiative. It was tried with 9th graders at Anacostia and Ballou high schools, which have the highest truancy rates in DCPS. The intervention links truants and their families to case management and social services, coordinated with the school. The basic idea is that barriers to school attendance are often found in the home, so that reducing truancy requires intervention with the family. The immediate target of the intervention is to address the family needs of students with attendance problems. The hope is that this will also improve student attendance.
Our evaluation focused on the pilot’s implementation stage. Roughly 30 9th graders participated in the pilot program, which successfully linked families to needed services and likely improved family well-being. Did the program reduce truancy? That’s not so clear. Truancy clearly worsened from 8th to 9th grade for the program participants as well as for their 9th-grade schoolmates. Participants also began with worse truancy than their classmates. The program may have mitigated the truancy increase we would have seen otherwise; we are unsure. (This pilot program was too small to rule out chance findings, and did not involve a strong comparison group.)
But even if the program led to somewhat better truancy than otherwise, participants still ended the year with worse truancy than their classmates. Why? And does this result contradict the program’s assumption that truancy is often family-based? I don’t think so.
Instead, our results prompt me to consider the relationship between the individual student (and his or her family) and school norms. When truant behavior stands out as unusual, intervening with a truant and his or her family may be enough to return the student to typical levels of school attendance.
But the intervention wasn’t tested in such a climate. Instead, the program was tried in high schools where most students are chronically truant. When skipping school doesn’t stand out as unusual, I suspect that removing student- and family-based barriers to attendance often won’t be enough to motivate attendance. Reducing truancy will also require simultaneously changing school and community norms about school attendance. DCPS and the Interagency Truancy Task Force have been attempting to do so through a public awareness campaign.
Is there a tipping point in truancy, beyond which a school-wide transformation is a necessary ingredient in attendance reform? I suspect so. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but I would guess that it is considerably below 50 percent truancy.
Above the tipping point, the school is caught in a vicious cycle: to improve attendance patterns requires improving individual students’ attendance, but improving individual truants’ behavior also requires simultaneously changing the norms of school attendance. It may also take intervening at earlier ages. This is not an effort for the faint-hearted. It will take thoughtful experimentation, along with good evaluation, over the long haul.