Monday, September 19, 2016

Teaching Ghosts

One often overlooked aspect of the incessant testing and accountability culture that is so pervasive in today’s public education system is the fact that so many students are chronically absent from school. I have had several principals over the years (not my current one) who have told me that I can’t teach ghosts, and that I need to focus on the students sitting in front of me each day. There’s a certain amount of truth to that advice. It’s not healthy to worry about what I can’t control, and what I can control zaps almost all of the energy I have. Still, those students who are frequently absent and tardy to school will take the same TNReady test as the rest of my students, and if they don’t perform well (which is unlikely), they still count against my own evaluation as an educator and the school’s and district’s evaluations on the school report cards that are released each year.
The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) defines chronic absenteeism as a student who misses so much school--regardless of whether the absence is excused or unexcused--that the student is academically at risk of passing the school year. Usually, this means that the student has missed 10% or more of the instructional days, which would amount to at least 18 absences per school year. Discipline problems frequently accompany absenteeism because students are lost and bored when they return to school. TDOE is aware of this statewide problem and are working towards solutions.
Because of my role as a Hope Street Group (HSG) Teacher Fellow, I had the opportunity to participate in a webinar last week with TDOE on this very issue. Some of the information that was revealed during that webinar was interesting and eye-opening. While absentee rates vary greatly across the state, the largest absentee rates are at the two polar opposites of the educational spectrum--PreK and 12th grade, at 24% and 25%, respectively. African-Americans, students who are economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities are the most likely groups of students who will miss school, at 17%. Across all grade levels, students who miss two or more days in August are five times as likely as their peers to be chronically absent. Ninth grade is a crucial year for students to attend school, as students in this grade level who are chronically absent are 38% less likely to graduate from high school.
Students miss school for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have a strong aversion to school and don’t want to come because of: academically and social struggles, bullying, ineffective school discipline, negative school experience from the family, and undiagnosed disabilities. Other students are simply disengaged from a lack of engaging and relevant instruction, few meaningful relationships with adults in the school, and a poor school climate.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Coffee County Schools were highly praised by TDOE in the webinar. While many school systems saw their absentee rates increase last year, the opposite is true in Coffee County, where our attendance rates have increased. This is certainly something to be celebrated. September is “Attendance Awareness Month” in Tennessee, and each Coffee County School is doing something difference to bring students’ awareness to the importance of coming to school.
The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the federal No Child Left Behind Act, returns an extraordinary amount of power to states on how they want to operate their education systems. ESSA will go into effect next school year, and TDOE is working on how to eliminate obstacles to student success, like chronic absenteeism and student discipline. HSG is currently conducting in-person focus groups with teachers across the state on these two topics, and the results will be funneled to TDOE so they can make well-informed decisions based on teacher input. Running concurrently with the focus groups is HSG’s online survey, which will remain open until Friday, October 14th so that teachers can have their voices heard. The survey can be found at

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