First Person

Counting attendance in school ratings could be smart — or completely misleading

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

As a superintendent, no part of my job was more important than visiting schools and seeing students, teachers, and leaders in action. Those visits kept me grounded, reminding me of the real-world importance of every decision we made in the central office.

But that’s not to say that I always liked what I saw. Sometimes I would drop in on random classes and see inspiring examples of high-quality teaching and learning. But other times I saw teachers going through the motions and students waiting around for the bell to ring.

Whenever I visited one of those lifeless classrooms — and I saw far too many of them — I found myself wondering how the kids manage to show up every day instead of lashing out in rebellion against dull lessons and mediocre teaching. What explains their willingness to keep attending a class taught by a teacher who isn’t interested in them? Maybe it’s the price they have to pay to pass the course and move on toward a diploma, but if they chose to play hooky sometimes, who could blame them? Wouldn’t that be a rational thing to do?

I don’t mean to suggest that boredom is the main reason why students skip school. But it is worth asking how much of a role it plays now that many states are considering the use of absentee rates as a factor in determining school quality.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, state and local leaders are supposed to find new ways, beyond the use of test scores, to gauge their schools’ performance. If absenteeism becomes one of those factors, then how should we account for its many possible causes? To what extent is a school to blame for the problem, and to what extent is it caused by things outside of a school’s control?

If the school is unsafe, for example, or if teachers have bad relationships with students, or if classroom instruction is flat-out boring, then we might argue that a poor attendance rate is a fair indication of the school’s poor performance overall. But what if students often miss school because they can’t get there — say, because the bus system is unreliable — or because of chronic health problems, or because they have to work to support their family, or because they don’t have clean clothes?

The school can certainly help identify those factors through the use of early warning systems, and perhaps it can even help organize community resources to change those conditions. But, in those circumstances, is it fair to treat the absentee rate as a measure of school quality? (Robert Balfanz offers more detail on these issues here.)

Perhaps a better approach would be to consider each school’s rate of absenteeism in light of the resources it has available. For example, district leaders might choose to give some leeway to a school that has a high absenteeism rate but which has only a single counselor for its 750 students. But what if that school’s absenteeism rate is just as high five years later, after the district has given it funding to hire two more counselors? Does it still deserve some leeway, or has it squandered its resources?

Similarly, what should we make of a school where, in order to improve attendance rates, the principal creates a plan for teachers to conduct home visits, but the teachers association refuses to permit it, arguing that the extra assignment would violate the existing contract? How should that school be compared to one that has more funding, opts to pay teachers to conduct home visits, and sees its attendance improve as result?

Once you get into the weeds, it quickly becomes hard to say whether absenteeism can be treated as valid indicator of school quality at all. The hope, of course, is that if states put a spotlight on the issue and define it as an important ingredient in school effectiveness, then they can create positive incentives for schools that, in turn, help more students learn. (Elaine Allensworth and Shayne Evans have documented how Chicago Public Schools saw improvements in their high school graduation rate after taking steps to boost attendance in ninth grade.)

I’d like to believe that this will work, and I know that many states are betting that it will. But I also believe that it’s critical for policymakers to make decisions based on what they know, not what they hope. And what we know, from decades of efforts to improve the public schools, is that education leaders and policymakers are easily drawn into pursuing simplistic solutions to complex problems.

So it’s entirely predictable that teachers and administrators will look for easy ways to improve their attendance by coercing, cajoling, or threatening parents and kids to get to school. Moreover, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some schools respond by clearing certain kids from their rolls as a way to bring down their absenteeism numbers. (Will states control for that in their formulas?)

But the real question is this: What are schools doing to create good reasons for students to attend? If absenteeism is going to be used to judge school quality, let’s be sure that we’re pulling the right levers to improve it.

Joshua Starr is the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators
. He was previously the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut. He tweets @JoshuaPStarr.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.