Home > Uncategorized > Obama Administration Proposes Schools Stem Absenteeism by Assuming Social Work Tasks

Obama Administration Proposes Schools Stem Absenteeism by Assuming Social Work Tasks

An AP story written on October 7 by Jennifer Kerr described the Obama administration’s solution to the problem of excessive absenteeism in public schools: have “…officials take a deep dive at the school-level to see why these kids are absent so often.”

In the late 1980s the school district I led identified chronic absenteeism as an issue and did as deep a dive as was possible given the data collection limitations of that time. Here’s what we found: children who missed school the most came from disadvantaged homes with limited or ineffective adult supervision or in some instances from homes where parents had given up on forcing their child to go to school. I daresay that any “deep dive” today will find the same results and administrators at those schools will ask the same questions we did: “What can we do now?” We devised strict attendance policies, a process that took over a year to enact because of complications involving, among other issues: parents who wanted to take their children on vacations; judges who did not want to see their court rooms filled; a limited number of home-school liaisons to visit the schools; and limited access to doctors– a factor when we intended to insist on a doctor’s note in any case where a child missed more that a certain number of days. We also formed alliances with the social services department, which was relatively easy given that both the school and the social services departments covered the same areas. Finally, we determined that early intervention was crucial and thus sought an expansion of counselors into elementary schools. I offer this overview to illustrate the obstacles a school level administrator might face if they perform a “deep dive”:

  • Principals need the backing of their board, the local police, the local health agency, and the local social workers if they begin to “dig deeply” into absenteeism.
  • Principals need more staff to do a “deep dig” into the causes of absenteeism… and they need to be prepared to file reports to child protective services if they find a “reason to believe” child neglect and abuse is a factor in the absenteeism.
  • The entire system needs to coordinate its efforts with those of other agencies serving children.

The most appalling quote in the article came from Acting Secretary of Education John King, an advocate of deregulated for-profit charter schools who said:

“We have to be thoughtful and careful to provide structure and support, rather than suspend or punish students who are struggling to make it to school every day,” said John King, a senior Education Department official who will take over as acting secretary in December. “It sends the wrong message to tell a student who is not coming to school that they are unwelcome.”

This from a man who supported the implementation of selective charter schools who made if difficult for parents of “students who are struggling to make it to school every day” to enroll and who could drop “students who are struggling to make it to school every day” from their roles with no consequences whatsoever. If the Obama administration was sincerely interested in engaging children in school it might first look at the misbegotten test-and-punish system it has set in place, a system that encourages schools to adopt policies that retain students who fail a single test, policies that encourage students who do poorly on tests to enroll elsewhere, and policies that make students feel like failures on a daily basis.

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