In a recent report on truancy in DC, we found that for four public high schools in DC, most of the students were chronically truants in 2010-11, as defined by at least 25 unexcused absences. By definition, these students missed at least 5 weeks of school unexcused; on average, they actually had more than 40 absences. In four other high schools, more than 40 percent of students were chronically truant. At the other end of the scale, three high schools had a less than 5 percent chronic truancy rate and another three had rates below 10 percent.
Students who don’t attend school cannot learn very much and are on a path to dropping out. What should we do about this? I have three observations today.
1. Should we punish these students or expel them? Or punish their parents?
Expelling students for not attending school is an ironically ineffective way to improve attendance. Sometimes policy-makers want to use the justice system – in this case the Family Court – as a major way to respond. But when you think about the numbers, it becomes clear that the Family Court cannot practically be the major response to chronic truancy. In 2010, there were about 2,500 truants in DCPS high schools. Sending all of them—or their parents—to Family Court would swamp the court. Nor is it reasonable to send half the student population of several schools to court. Imagine the news coverage. Unfortunately, the court can do little with chronic truants that is constructive. It can order them to attend school. But when they don’t obey, the Court is in the position of threatening other punishments, such as detention, which do not improve school attendance. Truancy is not delinquency—even if it is a risk factor for delinquency—and should not be treated as such. And because punishing chronic truants through the court is unrealistic, the threat to do so is not very credible and has little deterrent value.
2. Are these high schools especially bad at managing attendance? Not necessarily. We found that the level of absenteeism across high schools in 2010-11 was very strongly predicted by the absenteeism history of current students when they were in eighth grade.
The differences among schools in their absenteeism levels were mostly about the tendencies of their students when they arrived at high school, than about how the schools managed those tendencies. I conclude that the most effective way to reduce high-school absenteeism is to address it before high school.
3. I believe that truancy and educational improvement and reform are largely interwoven, and at scale, these problems cannot be addressed independently. We have a chicken and egg problem: unless students attend school, they cannot learn, but unless the school is an effective place to learn, students have too little reason to attend. So, these problems need to be addressed simultaneously. The Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Kaya Henderson, has made clear in statements and testimony to the DC City Council that she believes schools need to be effective and engaging places for youth in order to make headway in addressing truancy. I agree.
Read our first post about truancy in DC.