Who Cares About Truancy in Seattle Public High Schools?
[ED NOTE: This piece, using data that has not been previously compiled, reveals the need -- and an opportunity -- to address one of the most significant factors in low educational achievement and high school drop out rates. I think there's a basis here for calling for policy change. Please pass on the link, especially to educators.]
Some weeks ago I asked myself a simple, rather obvious question: how does the rate of unexcused absences vary among high schools within Seattle Public Schools? What I quickly learned is that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) doesn't compile and post this information because neither the Washington State Legislature nor the federal Department of Education require them to do so. You can go to the OSPI website and view all sorts of interesting statistics about your local high school, but you will find nothing about its unexcused absence rate. For that information, you must make a data request at the district level, as I did.
I learned two important things from my request. First, I found that no educational institution--not the Department of Education, not the Washington State Legislature, not the OSPI, not the Seattle School Board, not the district Superintendent's office--cared enough about unexcused absences at individual high schools to require that the data be compiled and posted so that parents and taxpayers could assess those high schools. The second thing I learned was that the rate of unexcused absences varies dramatically among Seattle's public high schools.
Below the fold are the average daily unexcused absence rates at Seattle's major public high schools during the 2005-2006 school year.
What these statistics indicate is that, on any given day, 13% of the students at Cleveland and 12.9% of the students at Rainier Beach are missing from classrooms--missing not because they were sick or had an appointment or took a short family vacation or were observing a religious occasion, but missing because they didn't show up to school for a half or full day.
How do Seattle high schools compare to high schools in other large districts? The OSPI doesn't compile and post truancy data in the form of an average daily unexcused absence rate, but it does provide data that allow us to make comparisons. For the Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane and Bellevue districts, I've taken OSPI data on district 9-12 unexcused absences and divided them by district 9-12 enrollment. Here are the results for the 2005-2006 school year:
Students with 1 or more unexcused absences in a school year
Students with 5 or more unexcused absences in a month
Students with 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year
The OSPI website contains the caveat that different districts count unexcused absences differently. Given the large variability in these percentages, one has to wonder how much we can rely on them as a valid means of comparing districts. If we take these figures at face value, for example, Spokane would have nearly a quarter of its student body missing for 10 or more days a year without valid excuses.
The other caveat is that OSPI uses total enrollment in a school year rather than average enrollment. In other words, OSPI counts all students who were enrolled for the school year, regardless of whether they transferred or dropped out. If OSPI used average enrollment, all these figures would be higher. About the only conclusion I would draw from these figures is that some districts may have a worse truancy problem than Seattle does.
As Jay Smink and Mary S. Reimer point out in "Fifteen Effective Strategies for Improving Student Attendance and Truancy Prevention" (National Dropout Prevention Center, Clemson University, 2005),
Students who are not in school cannot learn, and frequently drop out.
The data posted on the OSPI website supports these assertions in the case of Seattle public high schools. Schools with high unexcused absence rates tend to have low cohort graduation rates and low WASL scores, while schools with low excused absence rates have the opposite. Here, for example, are the data for tenth graders at two high schools at the upper and lower range in the district:
Chronic unexcused absences not only affect a school's averages, but they also affect the ability of teachers to improve the academic achievement of students in their classrooms. Many schools have a two-track academic system, with some students in "regular" classes and others in advanced placement classes. In a "regular" classroom, unexcused and excused absences can all-too frequently add up to an absentee rate as much as 20% or more. Almost every day we read something in the newspaper about the achievement gap, but it's difficult for teachers to close that gap if students don't come to class. In addition, the instructional techniques that teachers typically use to address the achievement gap are undermined by the absences of the very students those techniques are meant to help.
For example, it's very difficult for teachers to design instruction around small-group projects if members of these groups don't show up at key points in the process. Cooperative learning lessons in which the teacher has formed groups with a careful balance of personalities, talents, and backgrounds are easily thrown into confusion if a quarter of the class suddenly doesn't show up. Moreover, a teacher has difficulty maintaining a continuity of learning in the classroom if numerous students are missing for major parts of a series of linked lessons. Finally, the sheer volume of absences can become a management nightmare for teachers who track excused and unexcused absences, call parents, assign detention, assign make-up work, and so on. In short, the education of the students who show up to class regularly is affected by the students who don't.
In "Increasing Student Attendance: Strategies from Research and Practice" (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 2004), Jennifer Railsback writes:
There are well-established risk factors associated with dropping out and skipping school--family background and relationships, past school performance, personal characteristics, and school or neighborhood characteristics (Corville-Smith, Ryan, Adams & Delicando, 1998; Gleason & Dynarski, 2002). For instance, home dynamics such as impoverished living conditions, frequent home relocations, lack of child supervision, and other family issues are often related to non-attendance.
Other reasons commonly cited in the literature for truancy are that students don't feel safe at school, don't feel they belong or fit in, don't feel connected to their teachers or peers, and don't feel their classes are interesting or challenging.
How any of these factors might contribute to unexcused absences at particular Seattle high schools is not something we can know without further study. We can say that high truancy rates tend to correlate with a high percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch program at Seattle schools, but that really doesn't explain the underlying complex reasons for why students decide to skip school.
A former School Board member pointed out to me that low unexcused absence rates also roughly correlate with the size of the wait list to get into the school. A student who comes from a family with a low economic status, who has poor academic achievement, who has a low likelihood of graduating, and who would prefer to attend Roosevelt instead of Rainier Beach might well be a prime candidate for truancy. But such a characterization doesn't really describe the most important factor in whether a student decides to attend school: how she feels about it.
Federal, state and district policies address truancy in our schools, but they're not designed to solve specific truancy problems. Nonetheless, policies do lay down broad guidelines that have a bearing on how schools handle chronic unexcused absences.
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act made elementary and middle school attendance an "additional indicator" of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). As a result, OSPI gathers truancy data for individual K-8 schools and passes that data to the federal government. At the high school level, NCLB uses dropout rates as an AYP indicator, and as a result, OSPI doesn't track unexcused absences for individual schools.
At the state level, the legislature requires annual truancy data for 9-12 students by district and county. As Jennifer Railsback explains,
In 1995, Washington State passed the Becca Law that created a mandatory process for schools to inform parents of truancy, required districts to file petitions if a student has a certain number of absences, and gave power to the juvenile courts to issue sanctions against students and parents (Aos, 2002). The law also required districts to report to the state unexcused absences at the end of the school year, and provide data on what programs or schools have been developed to serve students who have excessive unexcused absences.
Seattle Public Schools has its own attendance policy, which can be found here. The policy is designed to be consistent with state law, to stipulate mandatory attendance conferences after two unexcused absences, to specify the exemptions from the attendance policy, to define the differences between excused and unexcused absences, to address long-term suspensions and absences, and to describe the kind of interventions schools should make in cases of truancy. The district does not, however, have the responsibility or means to implement attendance policy. That falls on the principal, administrators and teachers at individual schools.
Each high school in the district has its own attendance policy and procedures, which are supposed to implement the district's policy. In practice, the attendance and truancy-prevention programs at Seattle high schools range from highly structured and to ill-defined. According to Jennifer Railsback, there is evidence that an overly strict or harsh attendance policy can be counterproductive, but in my view, a more important factor in high school attendance policy is finding the resources to implement the policy. A high school can have a very impressive truancy prevention and intervention program on paper, but it won't work if the school doesn't have the people to carry it out. With the ongoing budget crisis in the district, all of Seattle's high schools lack resources in almost every category imaginable, including resources for truancy prevention and intervention.
Truancy is not exactly a new problem, and the literature abounds with approaches to increasing school attendance. Jennifer Railsback summarizes the research this way:
. . . [I]ncreasing attendance can generally be placed into the following, often overlapping, categories:
Smink and Reimer offer similar approaches to student attendance and truancy prevention:
It is undeniable that truancy prevention and intervention programs won't work if high schools don't have the people to implement them. Teachers can only do so much to compensate for a lack of resources, especially when they're facing the complicated management task of teaching and caring for 150 students with complex needs and pressing demands. Most teachers, in my experience, do exemplary work under difficult circumstances for years or even decades at a stretch. Nonetheless, I think there are some strategies we can employ to build on the manifold successes within Seattle high schools.
For example, Jennifer Railsback has described how Nathan Hale High School has focused on the attendance of the community of incoming ninth-graders. She suggests that this program was instrumental in raising overall attendance rates at Nathan Hale. If this program is still working, then perhaps other high schools could learn from it.
Garfield is another high school that has been experiencing success. Its new principal, Ted Howard , is known for having implemented a more comprehensive attendance policy and for making home visits. Garfield's active PTSA for two successive years has raised the money to fund the Read Right program, which, according to the PTSA's immediate past President, has not only improved reading and writing skills, but has even improved math skills. If the attendance and academic programs at Garfield have helped to keep students and their families engaged in the school community, then perhaps other high schools could be looking at adopting similar strategies.
At Ingraham High School, the academically challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) program has been a draw for the school that has given many parents a reason not to send their children to private schools. Yet, the district in its recent budget has proposed cutting funds for the program. If a high school is running a successful program that keeps students in public high schools, shouldn't the district be looking at expanding the program instead of cutting it?
The research literature suggests that career and technical education (CTE) programs can keep students actively engaged in school. As recently reported in the Seattle Times, some parents would like music education to count for CTE credits. There is much evidence that a good education in music helps students in other subjects, and Seattle is known for some of its award-winning high school music programs. Yet, parents who want music courses to count for CTE credits have run into administrative roadblocks. There is some debate about whether the problem resides in Seattle or Olympia, but wherever it resides, shouldn't we be giving students more opportunities to achieve success in school?
Finally, both Railsback, and Smink and Reimer have emphasized the value of service-learning projects in high schools. Service-learning is community service combined with academic study, and has been a growing movement in schools across the country. The Seattle School Board passed some years ago what has to be one of the most progressive service-learning policies in the nation. However, there is a difference between requiring high school students to complete sixty hours of service-learning and ensuring that high schools offer those students rewarding programs to involve themselves in. At The Center High School, for example, Jonathan Granados-Greenberg has a well-established civics program in which students choose a state legislative bill, petition their fellow citizens, and lobby their legislators in Olympia. The program typically gives students multiple opportunities to shine, and students often find themselves excelling in ways that are new to them. Mr. Granados-Greenberg's civics project is particularly well-organized and managed, and teachers at other schools could learn much from his experience.
I have just mentioned five examples of how Seattle Public Schools might improve their attendance and truancy prevention programs. Someone more knowledgeable than I am could certainly make more comprehensive and detailed proposals. The Seattle School Board is currently deciding who our next Superintendent will be. Whoever they hire, he or she will have the responsibility of presiding over an unenviable list of funding issues, all of which have a profound impact on the daily lives of our students.
In some respects, funding is a factor in whether some students go to school or go elsewhere. Attendance obviously doesn't all come down to funding, but it wasn't helpful when Governor Gregoire elected to delay, in the Washington Learns report, new proposals for restructuring the long-term funding of Washington's public schools. The recommendation of her Steering Committee was to study the issue and to make funding proposals precisely one month after her presumed reelection in November 2008. Meanwhile, while the governor is protecting her political fortunes, the dedicated administrators and teachers in Seattle Public Schools are struggling to compensate for the lack of political courage in Olympia.
While we wait for the Washington Learns committee to crank out another report, the Seattle School Board and the incoming Superintendent should be taking a fresh look at attendance in Seattle high schools. In a way, the lack of data on the daily average unexcused absence rate has allowed us to put the issue out of our minds. Now that we know that three of our high schools have daily truancy rates that exceed ten percent, we should be asking our elected officials and our new Superintendent what they intend to do about the issue. Lucky for them, there is no shortage of ideas for how to increase attendance, even in a climate of woefully inadequate funding.
The Seattle Times is reporting that Gregory Thornton withdrew his candidacy for the superintendent position and that the School Board is offering it to Maria Goodloe-Johnson. Let us welcome Dr. Goodloe-Johnson to Seattle and let her know how much we need good leadership in the district.
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