Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Washington, D.C., seemed to be doing great: A public school that enrolls only economically disadvantaged students, its graduation rate hit a recent high of 94.5 percent during the 2016-17 school year.
Yet in that same year, three-quarters of the students at Phelps were absent more than 10 percent of the time.
Phelps reflects a national trend in which high schools across the country have both high absenteeism and high graduation rates. A recent national study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that about one in seven students missed 15 days or more during the 2013-14 school year – the year before the national high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 84 percent.
Students aren’t the only ones not showing up – absenteeism is also common among teachers. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, found that in 2013-2014, at least one-fifth of traditional public-school teachers missed more than 10 days in 32 of the 35 states studied. According to federal data, in 2015, more than 41 percent of Rhode Island’s teachers were absent more than 10 days of the year. That was an increase from under 40 percent in 2013, but Rhode Island’s graduation rate nevertheless has hit an all-time high.
"It’s really easy to graduate more kids,” said David Griffith, a policy associate at the Fordham Institute. “You just graduate them.”
RealClearInvestigations contacted departments of education in all 50 states seeking to compare their school attendance rates with their graduation rates. Eleven provided comparable school-by-school data for 2016-2017, and in almost all of them, the same trend was present: Many schools had high rates of chronic absenteeism – students missing 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason – while still reporting high rates of students who graduated from high school in four years.
Among those states – California, Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee – it wasn’t hard to find schools where roughly a third of the students were chronically absent:
- Maryland, ranked the 11th best state for education by U.S. News & World Report, had 214 schools in 2017 with at least 30 percent of students chronically absent – about 15 percent of the public schools in the state. Yet 45 of these schools also had graduation rates of at least 80 percent.
- Massachusetts, ranked No. 1 by U.S. News, had 20 high schools with more than 30 percent of students chronically absent and graduation rates over 80 percent.
- In Rhode Island, out of 47 high schools with at least 30 percent of students chronically absent, 13 of them reported graduation rates over at least 80 percent.
- Tennessee had 112 schools with at least 30 percent of students chronically absent; 26 of these schools had at least an 80 percent graduation rate.
- In Connecticut, the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts recorded 38.3 percent of students chronically absent and a graduation rate of 92.4 percent.
- In Indiana, the West Side Leadership Academy in Gary had more than 41 percent of students chronically absent and a graduation rate of 86.2 percent.
“Graduation rates can be gamed by schools, and districts, and it’s not really telling us what we need to know about what students are learning,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. “Are they really prepared for college, career, workforce?”
Most of the schools with high absentee and graduation rates also had very low dropout rates, a finding that undercuts the idea that truant students may have left school and so only students with good attendance stuck around to graduate.
Kids can graduate without actually learning for many reasons, DeGrow says, but it often comes down to low standards in the classroom and the decision to simply pass kids along even if they’re not ready. “In Michigan you have a majority of eleventh-graders who aren’t proficient in math, and yet the graduation rate is about 80 percent,” he added. “Even among the percentage of kids who graduate and go on to higher education, a significant number of them are in need of remediation just to do college-level work.”
The high absenteeism figures understate the problem because of a multiplier effect in education: A day missed by a student or teacher is not just “a day” because lessons build on one another.
Phyllis W. Jordan, editorial director at FutureEd, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University, is even more blunt. “If you miss the week where kids are learning to multiply fractions,” she said, “you’re kinda screwed.”
Brian Jacob, a professor of education policy at the University of Michigan, said absenteeism is disruptive to the entire school. Not only do teachers and administrators have to worry about absenteeism rather than education, he said, but it’s hard for teachers to run a coherent class that builds on ideas week after week.
Chronically absent students have lower achievement, lower college enrollment, and poor outcomes overall, Jacob added.
Chronic absenteeism is more prevalent among students of color. In 2013-2014, while 12.7 percent of white students missed 15 days or more, the comparable figure was 17.3 percent for black students and 22.5 percent for American Indians. This follows other measures of general educational success in which minorities fall behind: In 2016, 88 percent of whites graduated from high school and 42 percent enrolled in college; in contrast, 72 percent of American Indians graduated and only 19 percent enrolled in college.
Not only do minority students tend to be absent more, said Michael Gottfried, associate professor at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, chronic absenteeism adversely affects them more than it does white students: They have disproportionately lower test scores.
The upshot, as DeGrow sees it, is a huge disservice to kids. “Ultimately to give any student, particularly students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or minority students – to give them a diploma without the knowledge and skills that they’re being promised -- you’re really shortchanging them and their opportunities to succeed in life,” he said.
Only a handful of schools among dozens contacted responded to inquiries by RealClearInvestigations into how they could have such high chronic absenteeism and high graduation rates simultaneously.
“The concern is on our radar,” said Superintendent Peter Dillon of Berkshire Hills Regional School District in Massachusetts, where Monument Mountain Regional High had a chronic absenteeism rate of 45.1 percent and a graduation rate of 95.2 percent.
In order to solve the absentee problem, the school is looking for ways to increase student engagement, he said.
But why should the kids come regularly if the teachers don’t? Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says chronic teacher absenteeism is a sign of a dysfunctional institution and is less likely to be related to high poverty than to an individual’s school’s culture. “If you see broad absenteeism within a school, it’s likely that either they got the message it doesn’t matter if they show up, or that they feel so dissatisfied with their work environment that they don’t attend regularly,” she said.
Regardless of the causes, it’s not a good sign, says Fordham’s Griffith: “The reality is there’s no way kids are going to learn when teachers aren’t in the classroom.”
Experts are divided on the effect of teacher unions on absenteeism. Eunice Sookyung Han, economics professor at University of Utah, said that because strong unions are able to get tenured teachers higher salaries, schools are more likely to fire bad teachers before they get tenure. Han speculated that since bad teachers are more likely to be absent, stronger unions may indirectly reduce absenteeism.
But once teachers get tenured, it can be extremely difficult to fire them, according to a Fordham Institute report.
Absenteeism tends to be compounded by time-off policies, including what critics see as high numbers of paid sick days unions negotiate in their contracts, typically 10-15 per school year, said Griffith. “Teaching is a hard job, so I do think it's appropriate for teachers to get sick days,” he said. “But in my opinion, eight days is a more appropriate number.”
Teacher absenteeism, however, is also a problem in “right to work” states where unionization is restricted. In one, North Carolina, about 35 percent of North Carolina's traditional public school teachers teachers were absent for more than 10 days in the 2013-14 school year, the Fordham study found. Suggesting the role a school's culture can play, under 15 percent of teachers were absent for more than 10 days during the same year in North Carolina's charter schools, which are granted autonomy to promote educational innovation.
Some unions say teacher absenteeism is explained largely by illness. In Pennsylvania, where over 30 percent of Pennsylvania’s public school teachers were absent more than 10 days in 2013-2014, Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the state teachers’ union, said teachers tend to catch colds or other bugs from kids, or they take off to take care of their own children.
While everyone knows it is important to be in school, measuring “chronic absenteeism” is a fairly recent development.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, requires that states choose to report a few indicators of school performance. Most states have chosen to report chronic absenteeism. “This is the first time in our nation’s history that the federal government is going to be holding schools accountable,” said Gottfried.
In the past, everyone thought of absenteeism in terms of truancy, or unexcused absences; or the attendance rate, which is how many kids show up to school, said Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, an organization working to reduce chronic absenteeism. “But both of those figures mask chronic absence,” added Chang, “which asks a different question: How many kids are missing so much school, for any reason, that they are academically at risk?”
The increased attention to absenteeism is leading some districts to offer classes without the classroom. Online credit recovery courses – often offered by for-profit companies – allow students to retake courses they have failed without having to show up at school. A still small but growing number of schools such as Rhode Island’s Village Green Virtual Charter School have taken that concept even further. Aside from one English and one math class, all classes at Village Green are virtual. It’s like “Phoenix University for kids,” said Robert Pilkington, superintendent of multiple charters in Rhode Island. Last year, he said, a student did his coursework while he was vacationing with his family in Cuba.
Other schools are taking a more old-fashioned approach by trying to address some of the underlying problems at home that interfere with students’ education.
William Massey, principal of H.D. Woodson, a high school in Washington, D.C., that in 2017 reported a 91.1 percent chronic absenteeism rate and an 83.2 percent graduation rate, said he tries to step in when kids are not getting the support parents usually provide.
“We know that parents are supposed to provide sufficient shelter,” he said. “We also know that that’s not always the case. Woodson has a washer and dryer to prevent kids missing school because they don’t have clean clothes. Woodson also has kids who live in homes without running water, said Massey, so the school provides showers.
“The key to keeping students back for school is providing them a relevant, engaging educational experience,” said DeGrow, “and offering them something that gives them hope beyond the other distractions and challenges they face.”
What’s most important, according to Griffith, is to focus not just on whether kids graduate, but what they actually learn. “In the long run,” he said, “kids probably aren’t going to be better off if they graduate without learning very much.”