Thursday, November 21, 2019
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Absenteeism may contribute to dropout rate

An ad campaign produced by Absences Add Up.org, which includes the US Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice and is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, catches our eye at many places across the country with a simple message:


An advertisement at Chicago’s Union Station (Voxitatis)

The campaign is part of the Every Student, Every Day initiative, which is “a national effort to address and eliminate chronic absenteeism.” It comes from My Brother’s Keeper, run by the federal government, which is a program to promote intervention by civic leaders in the lives of young men of color. They hope to address unique challenges faced by African Americans and promote racial justice.

One challenge is when African-American boys avoid school. As the ad says, if they avoid school too much, they fall into a group of kids who are less likely to graduate from high school.

The reasons kids tend to avoid school include:

  • They’re not getting good grades
  • A bully is making them afraid to go to school
  • They’re often sick or don’t feel well
  • They have to care for another family member
  • Their family is having a tough time with housing or food
  • Mental or emotional health isn’t well with them or their family

Each of these causes of absenteeism comes with unique intervention strategies, which generally need to be applied on a case-by-case basis. For example, if a child is missing school a lot because he’s getting bad grades and doesn’t want to feel like a failure, parents might be able to intervene and assist the school. If the cause of a child’s absenteeism is a bully, the police might have to provide assistance.

So the campaign is a good one and supported by good research (see here and here, for example). It wasn’t clear to researchers in two separate 2015 studies whether one class of treatment was more or less effective than any other class of treatment, especially when it comes to children avoiding school because of emotional or psychological issues. But that just means the statistics don’t find a trend among hundreds of students.

These studies underscore the complexity of school avoidance and absenteeism and lead us to conclude that individualized approaches are needed with kids who are frequently absent. The Absences Add Up.org site lists several national resources, available to schools, parents, volunteers, and other interested or concerned people. The government hopes, by this campaign, that parents and others can target any issues that might be making children absent too much and thereby help increase each child’s chances of success.

Finally, for the sake of completeness, we note the false reporting that can potentially result from ads like the one shown here and advanced by this campaign. The causes and effects of absenteeism are complex and, moreover, different for one kid than for another. To stereotype kids absent from school more than a specified number of days every month as kids less likely to graduate shows a complete misunderstanding of the research on this matter.

The ad is signed by the Ad Council, and that organization spends our tax dollars to make a poster here that makes sweeping generalizations, which some readers may interpret as a causative relationship between absenteeism and the dropout rate. We live in a world where yellow journalism and the reporting of fake news has gained prominence, and posters like the one above feed right into that sort of social media activity.

There has never been any causative relationship shown between absenteeism and the dropout rate, and to imply otherwise (with the math-type problem used for the ad) is irresponsible and inappropriate for such an important mission.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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