Op-Ed: To improve schools we must first battle absenteeism

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We’ve all heard or read a lot lately about the state of education in Rhode Island. The recent round of RICAS (Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System) scores has left parents, educators and policymakers frustrated and pointing fingers — especially when compared to the test results in neighboring states.

One way we’re trying to address the problem in the legislature is by solving the disparity that exists between the established educational standards and the curriculum. If passed, this bill (2019-H 5008) would direct the commissioner of education to develop a statewide curriculum. Our hope is that this would close the gaps that exist in the standards/curriculum/testing process by making sure these three things are all aligned — that every school and district is on the same page.

The goal is to give parents a clear map of what their children will be learning, and have it be consistent statewide. This is important for two reasons. First, Rhode Island is very small. There are school districts in the country that are as big as Rhode Island. There’s no reason why we can’t have a curriculum that is consistent throughout the state. Second, and more importantly, there is a high rate of student mobility in Rhode Island that reaches the 22 to 24 percent range in some communities. Consistency will help students who move from school to school or from district to district, and keep them from being overwhelmed by substantial changes in what they’re learning.

But there’s a bigger problem we need to address. Desks in Rhode Island classrooms are routinely empty. In fact, Rhode Island is one of seven states where more than 20 percent of students are chronically absent, according to federal data. In some high schools, that number approaches 50 percent. Not only is this shocking, but it’s the single biggest problem our education system has to surmount.

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Besides the obvious fact that children who regularly miss school are not learning the curriculum, they also tend to become disengaged academically and socially, risking failure or dropping out entirely.

As you might imagine, chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more school days in a year, is largely a reflection of demographics. Black, Hispanic and Native American students are more likely to miss school. It’s counterintuitive, but students who have English as a second language are actually less likely to miss school than their counterparts who are proficient in the language. As always, high poverty is a major factor.

And you don’t need to be an educator to figure out that missing school on a large scale sets students back academically. Average reading and math scores across the nation show a significant drop-off in test scores for children who miss school regularly — regardless of the demographic.

I have introduced legislation (2019-H 5009) that would direct the state Department of Education to establish a chronic absenteeism prevention and intervention plan by Jan. 1, 2020. The bill would require an attendance review team in any district with a chronic absenteeism rate of 10 percent or greater. It would also require a team at any individual school with a chronic absenteeism rate of 15 percent or greater.

We need to develop a community response that does a better job of interacting among students, teachers and parents, not only identifying what works in reducing absenteeism, but what doesn’t work. Identifying strategies that improve attendance has to be part of any school intervention.

There’s no perfect, universal approach to absenteeism when you consider the varying and complicated reasons why students are absent. But it’s clear that an intervention is necessary. Because, the hard truth is that we can have the best educators, the best funding and the best curriculum in the country. None of that matters if the students don’t show up to school.

The author, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick Cranston), is chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee. He resides in Warwick.

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