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Chronic Absenteeism

Most talk about student performance refers to classroom practices of teachers. But if students are absent, the best teachers can't help them learn. Recognizing the magnitude of the problem, the Advertising Council has launched a campaign in English and Spanish to raise parental awareness ("A View of What's Missing From the Classroom," The New York Times, Aug. 29).

It couldn't come at a better time. A new study by Johns Hopkins University found that up to 15 percent of students are chronically absent, which means they miss 18 days or more of school for any reason. When I was teaching, I had countless students who met that criterion. Some were out because of illness. But as the demographics of the school changed, I noticed a pattern. Students from impoverished backgrounds were more likely to miss many days of school. When I asked them the reason, they explained that they had to care for siblings or attend to other family matters.

Because education up to a certain age in this country is a right, teachers are required to help students make up the work they have missed. This places an enormous burden on them because they effectively become private tutors, in addition to their regular duties with students in attendance. I don't know how teachers in high poverty schools manage to do both.

I don't think reformers understand the problem of chronic absenteeism. They often attribute it to boredom because teachers don't make the material interesting. I don't doubt that some teachers turn off their students by their uninspiring lesson plans. On the other hand, not all learning can be fun. That's where self discipline comes into play. Students have to take responsibility for their part in learning. Learning is really a partnership between teachers, parents and students. If all are involved, then performance soars. Trying to place all the blame on teachers is scapegoating.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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