It was hardly a shocking revelation that Detroit Public Schools ranked last in attendance among 21 big-city districts that took the National Assessment for Educational Progress exam. Nor was it revealing that high absenteeism is linked to poor performance, and may have a lot to do with the dropout crisis.
All of these deficiencies should be a rallying point for DPS to focus more attention on how to keep kids in school, off the streets and out of trouble. But DPS doesn’t have enough money — or time– to reverse this downward spiral of student disengagement.
The essence of a study by Attendance Works was that 30 percent of DPS fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-graders missed three or more days of school the month before taking the NAEP in 2013, compared to the 20 percent national average. These students received 11 fewer points on the math portion of the test and between 8 and 9 fewer points on the reading portion when compared to students with perfect attendance.
Over the years, DPS vainly tried to curb truancy. Counselors, social workers and psychologists were hired. Cash bonuses and merchandise were doled out to students who attend classes regularly.
The artificial inducements were a bad precedent because they sent the message that life is a crapshoot and hard work didn’t really matter. So DPS decided to get tough on the parents of the chronically truant.
After more than nine unexcused absences, a student’s attendance record ends up before the Wayne County Prosecutor for possible “endangering the welfare of a child felony charges.” This solution potentially punishes ignorance; criminalizing parents who may have little appreciation of the value of education, and who may be uneducated or undereducated themselves.
This brand of tough love also does not take into consideration that school readiness is shaped and affected by the erosion of basic values and the collapse of community institutions that teach them. The fragmentation of family, for example, plays a major role. Children who do not live with the mother and father are more likely to have attendance problems and drop out than children who do. And the high absenteeism rate is highest among the poorest families, who also tend to move frequently. Thus, it goes against the grain of tradition to ask schools to be responsible for correcting the poor educational performance of children born into troubled homes.
Criminalizing parents also ignores the fact that thousands of young children each year are exposed to health risks such as prenatal exposure to alcohol, drugs or smoking, lead poisoning, malnutrition or child abuse and neglect. These too may be factors that cause students to miss school.
Schools also can be hazardous to their health. Since DPS has more than its share of schoolyard violence and schoolroom disciplinary problems, it is no wonder the kids stay home rather than face a clear and present daily threat to their lives.
Teachers already complain that discipline problems impair their effectiveness. Forcing students who may be disruptive back into the classroom will likely contribute to the chaos and their discontent.
Some kids don’t like school. Others don’t attend because they are failing. Students who repeat one or more grades, for example, are probably twice as likely to skip than those never held back. Of course, many students suffer from low personal expectations and general boredom.
The issue is complex and the social problems kids face, pervasive. All make easy solutions daunting.
It might help if school administrators provided interesting, motivating and inspiring curriculums.
Ultimately, though, communities will have to be “re-cultured” before schools can be restructured from war zones to safe learning environments. Only then will the classroom become places youngsters want to be, and where they can acquire the skills to make it in an increasingly technically advanced workplace.