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

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.