Truants vs Absence

Sometimes good public policy just comes down to the money.

The Attorney General Kamala Harris has published a nicely designed report to raise the profile of chronic absenteeism (kids missing more than 10% of school per year) and truancy (being late- hmm, not much of a comparison).  It does a good job of laying out the complex realities that are allowing this problem to continue and to grow in some parts of the state and in many communities.  The underlying root causes are complex, but the system components are as simple (sorta) as poor data management systems, lack of awareness and lack of effective interventions.  While many people will not empathize with the impact that students really do suffer long term from chronic absence and the fact that is does predict graduation incredibly well at 3rd grade levels, others need to just see the dollar figure.  The AG’s estimates put the cost to our state as a result of dropouts as $46 Billion a year. Given the well established links between chronic absence and graduation (I helped build that case with some work in 2007 with Hedy Chang), we can’t pretend that this is something not worth investing in- the cost benefits are enormous.

One of the more incredible findings in the AG’s work was this:

Student record systems need repair and upgrade to accurately measure, monitor and respond to truancy.

California is one of only four states in the country that does not collect individualized student attendance records at the state level.10 Even at the local level, only half of the school districts that responded to our California School District Leadership Survey (“District Leadership Survey”)11 were able to confirm that they track student absence records longitudinally—that is, they track individual students’ attendance year after year. The failure to collect, report and monitor real-time information about student attendance renders our most at-risk children – including English learners, foster children and low-income free- and reduced-price lunch students – invisible.

There are few people who would expect that our modern society is incapable of tracking student attendance in a meaningful way, yet many of California’s school districts are struggling to do just this.  And the lowdown is that lack of data means lack of scalable understanding- a single teacher may have an awareness of a student’s absenteeism, but when a struggling kid moves up a grade the knowledge of this problem is lost, and the administrators sure aren’t aware that the same child is on the same bad trajectory year after year.  We often see fancy video screen laden operations centers on TV, but the reality described in this report is that many districts aren’t doing basic analysis of chronic absenteeism and as such are surely not working on and aware of successful interventions to assist these students.

Give it a read, it’s well written and illustrates a real crisis in our cities. My 2c is that we largely ignore the truancy data presented- it’s a red herring. Follow the money and you’ll see the outcomes of chronic absenteeism as a huge money pit – unless we really address this across our state equitably.

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