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

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.