The city’s attendance system is inefficient—and I’ve seen a better way

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As a high school teacher in Brooklyn, I have to remember to fill in a daily and weekly attendance sheet with a #2 pencil and remember to hand it in to our data collector in time for the school to call absent students.

This strikes me as a wildly inefficient system that has negative effects on teachers’ workloads and on student learning.

Teachers are already responsible for managing stacks of paperwork—student work, evaluation forms, meeting notes, and more—so the risk of us losing or forgetting attendance sheets is high. Even if all the sheets are submitted, there’s a lag time between when we submit the sheets and when we can access that data in the system.

I’ve seen a better way. In Philadelphia, where I taught until I moved to New York this year, I had access to up-to-date attendance information that let me find out right away if a student was absent from school or just from my class. Each of my students scanned his or her ID card each morning using a system called ScholarChip. Then, once in class, I logged onto a central server to quickly enter period attendance.

I was shocked when I found out that in New York, teachers still use bubble sheets to take attendance. Without good attendance data, a student in New York student could be skipping class without raising alarm, because her teacher could assume she was absent from school.

At my school, I’ve noticed that students have tried to game the system to avoid getting a detention for arriving late to class. Instead of entering a class late, they skip the class and hope we’ll assume they were absent all day.

The quality of attendance data is also a safety issue, particularly in the case of fire, a bomb threat, or a fight between students. Teachers don’t know to account for students they don’t know are in school. If poor attendance data leads us to assume students are absent when they are in fact in the building skipping class, we run the risk of not looking out for them when it’s our job to keep them safe.

In New York, I usually email other teachers to find out if a student is actually absent, since it takes time for the attendance data teachers submit to make it into the centralized database. In Philadelphia, where teachers entered attendance data electronically, I could check a student’s attendance status in five seconds.

With all the technological strides New York has made in recent years, why shouldn’t city teachers be able to do the same?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.