“Truancy” may no longer be the right word for it, maybe not even “absenteeism,” for both imply being missing from a place where one is supposed to be. “Truancy,” with its overtone of misbehavior and illegality, suggests willfulness, i.e., that one is intentionally missing, while “absenteeism” is a more neutral term with no suggestion of motive. But “chronic absenteeism,” a phrase much used nowadays in the K–12 world, always with alarm or disapproval, carries a hint that one may be missing out of habit or inertia, like being “chronically ill” or “habitually lazy.”
Yet all of these terms suggest that one isn’t where one belongs, specifically that children who belong in school, should be in school, and are expected to be in school, in practice are not in school. Put differently: The normal state for school-age children is assumed to be attending school, being physically present under a school roof, yet they’re not there, many of them. They’re “absent.” They may be “chronically absent.” Perhaps they’re also “truant.”
No surprises, so far. But maybe it’s time to surprise ourselves with an alternative framing of the undeniable fact that, across much of the land, school attendance is down and a large number of youngsters are somewhere else. Maybe we must acknowledge that they—and the adults responsible for them—no longer take for granted that they “belong” in school. Maybe school—at least the physical structure called a “school building”—has come to be viewed by many as optional, volitional, akin to a public library or recreation center, a place in which one might choose to spend time but is under no obligation to. Perhaps the pandemic and the associated school closures, combined with the proliferation of arrangements by which one can learn things pretty much anywhere and anytime, have indeed brought about a cultural shift in America (and elsewhere?) regarding “a place called school” and our relationship to it.
That’s not an original insight. I’m borrowing it from Fordham colleagues who talk and write about today’s “disaffiliation” of Americans from traditional obligations such as “attending school” (and paying attention to the teacher rather than one’s phone), and from Paul Kihn, the District of Columbia’s sagacious deputy mayor for education. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Kihn observed that “the pandemic did something to change students and families’ relationships with schools to some degree that we don’t yet fully understand.... We have also come to understand that there are a not insignificant number of families that actually don’t think it’s crucial to have their kids in school every day.”
I’m pretty sure he’s right. It’s part of a larger (and to me unwelcome) cultural shift in our society, such that traditional relationships and obligations have weakened. Thus fewer marriages, fewer marriages that last, fewer two-parent families, more misbehavior from airplanes to classrooms to public parks. One might say we have, in Pat Moynihan’s phrase, “defined deviancy down” across many domains. That means we no longer even view as deviant behaviors those that were once taboo.
When it comes to school attendance, the pandemic also made a difference that’s turning out to be durable. For many, many months, kids in many, many places weren’t expected to attend school. Indeed, tens of millions had no physical school to attend. Supposedly they were learning at home, but we have ample evidence (NAEP, PISA, more) that giant platoons didn’t learn much. Just as one’s physical muscles weaken and atrophy when they get no exercise over many months, our education muscles weakened. Our commitment to school atrophied. We got out of shape with respect to formal education, and many still are. That’s why—to the consternation of Kihn and education officials throughout the land—absenteeism today is far higher than before the pandemic. In D.C. last year, the Post reported, “43 percent of children missed at least 18 days of school” and “37 percent of children were deemed chronically truant.”
Numbers like those are no little blip. They’re a very big deal and likely a sign of something fundamental and probably durable. (Even as I deplore it, I can’t help relishing the fact that the teacher unions that pushed so hard for schools to stay closed for so long may have reaped the whirlwind of diminished attendance that in time will surely reduce the need for so many teachers and thus jeopardize a number of their jobs.)
What is to be done? I see three options.
First is to assume (or at least act as if) it’s a passing phase. Sooner or later kids will get bored at home and parents will tire of looking after them or making alternative arrangements for them. Maybe. But I suspect not. Technology means that one never need be bored. School as we know it isn’t all that much fun. And the changing nature of adult work means many parents are themselves at home far more than they used to be.
Second is to take heroic measures to woo kids back into school (or make miserable the lives of parents who don’t make them attend). Enforce the truancy laws. Maybe fine or jail parents of chronic non-attenders (or sentence them to volunteer in middle schools). Hold pizza parties in the principal’s office. Shorten the weeks and lengthen weekends, whether to make school attendance less off-putting or simply to define absenteeism down. Or just ease the learning burden by reducing homework, simplifying curricula, making it easier to get A’s on report cards—and less likely that one will fail anything, much less be held back for lack of achievement.
Some of all that is happening. Whether it will serve to boost attendance is anybody’s guess. I suspect it won’t do much—and insofar as it makes school “easier,” it’s sure to contribute to lower standards and diminished achievement among most of those who do attend.
Third—and by far the most challenging—is to rethink and revamp the education delivery system itself. Redefine “compulsory attendance.” Make it more about mastery than attendance. Welcome—and amplify—the many ways that mastery can be attained. Deploy technology and choice and tutors, mini-schools and micro-schools, part-time schools, schools that meet at odd times and places, smorgasbord schools that one attends (or zooms into) just for the things one still needs to learn. Make it all year-round and as much of it as possible 24/7. Help those who need it to access the technology, the counseling, the bandwidth, the transportation to avail themselves of this differentiated system. Make “access to education” more like today’s access to entertainment.
I’m not saying do away with traditional brick-and-mortar schools, especially for younger pupils—though what goes on in them should become more flexible, better attuned to mastery, more engaging, with more options and choices that are better matched to students’ needs, capabilities, and prior achievement. Many, perhaps most, families will favor that version for the foreseeable future, particularly for elementary-age kids. But stop assuming that it’s the only way.
Do, however, take mastery seriously across the K–12 board. That’s where standards and assessments come in, assessments of many kinds, not just standardized tests, whether students attend traditional schools or pursue learning through other means. And “enforce” it by making mastery of the academic core—the three R’s, science, civics, history, maybe the arts, plus potentially a bunch of other things like community service—the prerequisite for subsequent opportunities, whether college or career-related.
Hugely disruptive, I know, which is why option three will be resisted and avoided. But in the end, it might be the only one that recognizes our new reality. Just tabulating and lamenting the rising rate of “chronic absenteeism” won’t accomplish anything.