Chronic Absenteeism: Public School's Forgotten Problem?

John Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz says absenteeism is one of the reasons the millions of dollars spent on education reform has not worked.

Up to 7.5 million students nationwide are chronically absent, a new report estimates. That means, those students miss at least 18 days of each school year. It's a problem that goes "unnoticed and unmeasured," experts says, because there's no federal database with a common definition of chronic absenteeism where data from every state is stored.

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher, looked at six states that do track the numbers and found the scale of the problem is scary.

"In Maryland, there were over 50 schools in the state with the equivalent of two elementary classrooms missing a month of school," he says. "At the high school level, it was truly astounding. We found 61 high schools where there were 250 kids missing a month or more of school. That's equal to 10 classrooms of students who were not there on a regular basis."

It's a huge problem because so many absent students means teachers struggle to address their needs while also keeping other students on track.

Balfanz compares the problem of chronic absenteeism to "bacteria in a hospital that can wreak havoc long before it is discovered." It may be why all the millions of dollars spent on school reform efforts have not been as successful as they should have been, he adds.

"We looked at ninth grade testing data in Florida, and we essentially found a miss-one-day, lose-one-point relationship," he says. "Which is, for every day a kid misses school, they, on average, score one point lower on the high stakes tests."

Typically, students miss a lot of school around kindergarten and around high school. When they are little, it's the parents or guardians not bringing them to school. At the high school level, it can be that the students themselves choose to skip class.

For example, two DCPS students who miss the most school are sisters, says D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.  "Because their mother was ill, and didn't have the appropriate home healthcare and so the girls were alternating staying home from school," she explains.

That's an example of students who can't attend because of family responsibilities. There are also students who won't attend because they're embarrassed they can't do the coursework. Sometimes, high schoolers skip because they don't get along with other students or other students don't get along with them.

Regene Davis is an example of the latter. "My ninth grade year, 10th grade year, I been fighting up here, and like I been just doing," says Regene. "I been in the streets just being crazy, acting wild."

And there are students like Kevin Davis, who don't attend school because they, or their parents, do not see the point of being there.

"Most people wasn't going to class, they go, but they hang in the hallways," Kevin says. "I started hanging around them and I started picking up their ways."

Schools and school districts usually look at what's called "average daily attendance," which is different from examining how many students and which students are in school. But some analysis, including Hedy Chang, who runs the organization Attendance Counts, says the average can mask the problem of chronic absenteeism.

"You can have 200 kids in a school. 190 show up, 10 don't show up," says Chang. "Those 10 kids, aren't the same kids every day. Are they 200 kids [each] missing a few days, or are they 60 kids [each] missing a month or more of school?"

DCPS doesn't collect data on excused absences, only unexcused absences. Citywide, 20 percent of students miss at least 15 days of school per year. That number jumps to 40 percent among ninth graders.

DCPS did start an advertisement campaign around this issue a few months ago called "The More You Learn, The More you Earn." Other efforts include school officials doing parental outreach, and identifying 50 students who have missed the most days and working one-on-one with them.

[Music: "Theme" by Jon Brion from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack]