The Hidden Education Crisis and a Missed Opportunity for Arizona to Improve

I had a student a few years ago who never came to school on Mondays.  After I noticed the odd pattern, I asked him about it.  His response was jaw-dropping: “My family likes three-day weekends.”  This phenomenon is perhaps not as unusual as one might think.  A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education called chronic absenteeism “a hidden educational crisis.”

Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as missing between 15-18 school days a year, or roughly 10% of the school year.   Eight million students in the U.S. were chronically absent in 2015-16; 800,000 more students than two years earlier. However, chronic absenteeism isn’t just geo-specific to Arizona.  In fact, in 58% of schools in the U.S, at least 10% of the students were chronically absent.

The results of chronic absenteeism can be disastrous.  Chronic absenteeism has been linked to reading below grade level in 3rd grade and not graduating in high school.  It’s even worse for some populations of students.  Among students ages 5 to 17, those with at least one developmental disability are twice as likely to be chronically absent when compared to their peers. Chronic absence rates also tend to be higher among racial/ethnic minority students and low-income students.

Even though most of my students don’t believe in taking self-imposed three-day weekends, chronic absenteeism impacts all of us.  Precious class time is lost to catch students up on what they missed, track missing work, and deal with extended due dates.  My students’ success is my responsibility but not mine alone.  That’s where I believe Arizona missed a chance to impact student learning outcomes.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Student Left Behind, is the federal law that shifts the responsibility of setting education goals from the federal government over to states.  States are now required to report chronic absenteeism as part of ESSA, and some also using a measure of chronic absenteeism as part of their accountability plans.

Arizona ranks 14th in chronic absenteeism, according to recent data.  Arizona’s acceleration model in its accountability plan provides a chance to earn up to 5 bonus points in the formula that ultimately determines our A-F school letter grade. Yet, the state’s plan makes little mention of chronic absenteeism, calling into question Arizona’s focus on supporting underserved students and teacher retention.  With a change in Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona, this could be an opportunity to improve our accountability plan.  Since the state must now report attendance information for ESSA compliance, it is a missed opportunity that the plan does not call for strategies that would benefit schools and districts.  The Department of Education should then help schools learn how to use this data to identify truant students, provide interventions, and then monitor efforts to improve their attendance.  Our revised state plan should include a framework to identify strategies that work, how to replicate and scale them, and how to sustain them with limited resources.

The evidence suggests that a variety of approaches can be successful.  Low-cost interventions, such as calling students’ homes, texting their parents, referring them to counselors, and creating individualized plans have been shown to reduce both excused and unexcused absences.  Other interventions could include awareness campaigns and community and business partnerships.  There are ample opportunities to prioritize evidence-based truancy strategies for districts and schools in Arizona.

Arizona’s accountability plan mainly focuses on compliance rather than addressing the systemic equity work that brings significant increases in student outcomes.  Our state is missing an opportunity to positively affect the learning outcomes of our students, but it’s not too late.

Beth Maloney is in her nineteenth year of teaching and enjoys every minute of her time in her fifth-grade classroom in Surprise, Arizona. Beth is a National Board Certified Teacher, president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teachers Network, and coaches other teachers undergoing rigorous National Board certification. She is a member of the Arizona TeacherSolutions® Team and a blogger for Stories from School Arizona and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree. Beth is honored to be Arizona’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. Beth strongly believes that teacher voice in the public education dialogue is the best way to make change for the better for all students.