Flower

Chronic Absenteeism:
Why It Matters and How to Fight It

My no-nonsense parents had no patience for illness let alone truancy. School attendance was required; sickness was just another brick-heavy textbook in my backpack. But in the fifth grade, savage bacteria fought for my liberty. I thought I caught the bubonic plague, so I went to the school nurse. Diagnosis: fever, no plague. My mother had to pick me up—nurse’s orders. I was free, even though it only led to soup and sleep.

Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?…

My early dismissal wasn’t exactly Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this month. In that film, Bueller skips school, “borrows” a Ferrari, tours Chicago, and outwits every adult. Even adults can recognize the appeal in that scenario. Being absent once in a while is liberating. No big deal, right?

Adding It All Up

As it turns out, absences add up fast. According to a recent U.S. Department of Education (DOE) report, truancy is endemic. Thirteen percent of U.S. students, 1 in 8, are chronically absent, which is defined as missing at least 15 days of school a year. High school students are the worst offenders: nearly 1 in 5 is chronically absent. Minority students also have higher rates of chronic absenteeism.

Why It Matters

Ferris Bueller is a career truant. Does it matter, really? It does, actually. The same DOE report cites studies finding that truancy causes students to fall behind in important areas like reading. Chronic absenteeism also indicates a greater likelihood of dropping out. And consequences may extend into adulthood: truancy and dropping out lead to poorer health outcomes and increased chances of going through the criminal justice system.

What We Can Do

If Ferris Bueller proves anything, it’s that truancy beats economics class. But—other than not sounding like Ben Stein—there are some things educators can do to curb chronic absenteeism.

  • Collect individualized data. Use data to identify which students are chronically absent.
  • Engage students and parents. Awareness matters. Sometimes students and parents simply don’t realize how quickly absences have added up.
  • Dig deeper. Ask a student or parent what’s going on. Some reasons are more serious: illness, family responsibilities, housing troubles, unstable home environments, insufficient transportation, bullying, personal safety concerns, and culture are just a few reasons that lead to absences.
  • Find solutions. More serious problems aren’t easily fixable, but identifying them is the first step toward finding solutions.

Avoiding absences altogether is impossible. Sometimes fifth graders spike fevers. And sometimes the Ferris Bueller’s of the world declare, “How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?” Too often, though, we dismiss the adverse consequences of truancy, but it’s no joke. Curbing chronic absenteeism now will help students become successful adults. It’s within our power to at least try.

How does your school fight chronic absenteeism?

Share your thoughts with us on Twitter #ProQuest or in the comments below.

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