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Learning at its Best

The Real Reason Kids Are Missing From School

Education Week posted a poll on Facebook regarding student absenteeism.  The post does’t ask whether it should be a crime to miss school or whether compulsory schooling violates the rights of parents to raise their own children.  It doesn’t ask whether the implementation of truancy laws has anything to do with the allocation of funds that schools get based upon the number of students present.  It doesn’t ask any questions beyond “What can be done to fix absenteeism in school?”

Pernille Ripp rightly points out that the key answer missing from the options involve motivation. Why isn’t there an option involving engaging, student-centered, meaningful curriculum?  Why are the solutions all about combatting the behaviors of absenteeism while ignoring the causes?

In my district, the causes of absenteeism are more complicated than anything Education Week has pointed out.  Within the context of the Maryvale community (a low-SES enclave of Phoenix), absenteeism is rooted in larger, systemic injustice that goes beyond simply “more officers” or “reach out to parents.”

If it were my survey in my community, I would add the following options:

  1. Quit treating student absences as a criminal act and assuming that the state knows better than the parents how to raise a child.  Quit criminalizing the victims of social injustice and help parents instead.
  2. Provide better jobs for parents (many of our students move frequently because they live transient lives)
  3. Provide a pathway to legal citizenship for immigrant families (families are fleeing to and from states out of fear of deportation, despite working hard and providing for their families)
  4. Daycare for parents with young children or a living wage so that families can live off of one income (many of our students miss school to watch younger siblings)
  5. Universal healthcare (many of our students miss school because they are not getting the preventative care that they need.)
What Education Week fails to grasp is that when you limit your options to fixing behaviors, you offer choice without freedom. 
(Unrelated note: for the next few days, you can download any of my books for a dollar on

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


7 thoughts on “The Real Reason Kids Are Missing From School

  1. This is a power piece thanks for writing it!

    Posted by dloitz | October 24, 2011, 1:59 am
  2. Awesome John and absolutely right. That’s exactly my experience too in working with districts and schools and absenteeism. Love your fiery voice.


    Posted by Kirsten | October 24, 2011, 7:51 am
  3. Where, indeed, is the choice, “Make school relevant?”

    If we can do away with the criminalization of absenteeism (and the worship of Carnegie units), maybe we can start to push out the borders of schooling so that they overlap with the learning available in our communities, as well.

    If not being at school is considered a problem by the system, John, could we not give credit for work and learning outside the school, even, in some students’ cases, exclusively? What do you think?

    Thanks, John –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 24, 2011, 7:55 am
    • I love your post, John. Meaningful, engaging, student-centered curriculum would solve a number of “problems” I think. And I also love your comment, Chad. Does being physically absent from school necessarily mean your experiences have no value in terms of learning? It seems that many kids who are physically present spend a fair number of hours “not learning” according to the state’s definition, but for some reason that time counts as legitimate and credit-worthy. Hmm.

      Posted by Paul Freedman | October 24, 2011, 9:19 am
  4. Absolutely. Attendance is a rule, not a necessary condition for learning. Great post!

    Posted by J Dunleavy | October 24, 2011, 12:55 pm
  5. Learning outside of school? Having non-academic activities/life “count?”

    Here we call that homeschooling or unschooling.

    How many of these poor families have that choice? How many have a school system that will work with them to set up a hybrid curriculum? How many will seek them out in a positive way to negotiate a return to school on the student’s terms (thinking here of a conversation I recently had with the Mom of a gifted student who had left his school to homeschool — the school wanted to work out a dual enrollment program)?


    Posted by NanceConfer | February 20, 2012, 8:07 am

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