Editorial: Want better educational outcomes? Start with getting students to class - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Want better educational outcomes? Start with getting students to class

Woody Allen once said 80% of success in life is just showing up. In no setting is this durable concept more applicable than in the classroom.

Chronic absenteeism is clearly a problem in New Mexico, and has been long before the pandemic and distance learning made it commonplace. Last school year, we once again did not meet the required test participation rate set by the U.S. Department of Education (92% participated when the feds want 95%). And while it’s unclear what the official consequences are (in 2019 our participation was 94% in reading, 92% in math; we got waivers in 2020 and 2021), N.M. students’ alarmingly low proficiency rates are crystal clear. Just 34% of third- through eighth-graders can read at grade level; only one fourth are proficient in math.

Test participation was lowest among high-school juniors, at 83%.

Absenteeism may not be the only factor in our test participation rate, but it certainly plays a role.

And chronic absenteeism is not relegated to high schoolers ditching classes. It starts much earlier, and is one of the key reasons New Mexico always ranks so low in overall student performance.

Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.

While this is a correlation that plays out across the nation, almost 30% of N.M. students are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10% or more of the school days they were enrolled for. For students at schools on traditional academic calendars, that’s about 18 instructional days. For those on extended calendars, it’s around 19. Across Albuquerque Public Schools, nearly 43% of students were considered chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the district’s data dashboard. It’s even higher for elementary school students — nearly 49%.

That absenteeism says a lot about why we struggle to achieve better footing with educational outcomes.

It’s a self-perpetuating doom cycle. Once kids fall behind, it’s easy for them to give up and stop going. And if they drop out, there’s no context for passing on the value of education to their children or emphasizing the importance of showing up for school every day.

For millions of Americans, a good education is the ticket to a better future. College and trade schools open doors to more career opportunities, higher earnings and upward social mobility.

But “education can only fulfill its promise as the great equalizer — a force that can overcome differences in privilege and background — when we work to ensure that students are in school every day and receive the supports they need to learn and thrive,” the U.S. Department of Education notes on its website. It called chronic absenteeism a “hidden educational crisis” well before pandemic economic pressures and disruptions threw lives into chaos and made it more difficult for some student populations to attend school regularly.

The very students who tend to face significant challenges and need the most educational supports are often missing the most school.

“Kids attending school is the bare minimum of what we need to have a functioning education system,” Abby Morehead, a Polk Middle School dual language social studies teacher, says. “We can implement all of the curriculum … that we want, but if the students aren’t in their seats in the classroom, then it’s all for naught.”

Anecdotally, Morehead said she finds kids who are chronically absent in middle school showed similar patterns in elementary.

This is a problem APS officials know well. They can point to reasons why students don’t come to school. But being able to explain the problem doesn’t necessarily solve it. And it’s not APS’ problem to solve alone.

We know many students experience tremendous adversity in their lives — including poverty, health challenges, difficult family circumstances, cultural and language barriers, special education needs — that make it difficult for them to take advantage of the opportunity to learn at school. “Each absent child has a real story,” writes Gail Stewart, a special education lawyer in Albuquerque, in a letter to the editor recently criticizing APS for unfairly shifting blame for chronic absenteeism to families. “Solutions can only be built on accurate understanding.”

APS does have school-level teams of nurses, social workers, counselors, student deans, principals and teachers who make it their mission to identify truant students and reach out to their families — not to scold, but to figure out what’s going on. The goal is to develop relationships, get to the root causes and find interventions. Because in the end, it is the families who determine whether a child makes it to school or not.

State lawmakers have weighed in over the years with proposals that range from the carrot to the stick to get students to go to class. And United Way of Central New Mexico and the state Public Education Department joined APS last week to host a 2022 Fall Attendance Conference that tackled topics ranging from attendance concerns for foster children to presentations from the perspective of high school students.

The bottom line is absenteeism shows up in results — not just in test participation but ultimately in work and life participation. It’s not enough to say it’s a complicated and complex problem. Students cannot learn if they’re not in school. PED, district officials, state lawmakers — and yes parents and guardians — must do better at improving attendance. Or history will keep repeating itself.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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