Muddled Thinking about School Absenteeism


by James A. Bacon

Slightly more than one in ten Virginia school students were “chronically absent” from school in the 2014-2015 school year, meaning that they missed 10%, or 18 out of 180 days, or more of the school year, according to a new study published by Luke C. Miller and Amanda Johnson for the University of Virginia EdPolicy Works.

Nor surprisingly, the authors found that chronic absenteeism was associated with lower standardized test scores and a higher propensity to drop out of school. Hardly shocking, they found that low-income and minority students were more likely to be absent. The study, “Chronic  Absenteeism in Virginia and the Challenged School Divisions,” focused on three troubled, inner-city school systems, Norfolk, Richmond, and Petersburg, where absenteeism is far more prevalent than for Virginia schools as a whole.

The primary contribution of the study is to delve into possible causes of school absenteeism, with the idea that a keener understanding of the phenomenon will help us craft better solutions. Here is the authors’ framework for addressing the issue:

Reasons for being absent can be clustered into three categories. … First, students may not be able to attend school because they cannot attend, for example, if they are sick, they are homeless or experiencing other forms of housing instability, or they have family obligations such as caring for younger siblings. Second, some students are absent because they have an aversion to going to school, for example, if they are having a tough time adjusting to a new school or if they do not feel safe at school. Third, students are absent from school because either the students or the parents would rather the student be somewhere else, for example, hanging out with friends at the beach or going on a family vacation. By targeting one or more of these reasons, interventions have proven successful at reducing chronic absenteeism.

Miller and Johnson tested their proposition that unsafe schools might be a factor by correlating absenteeism with school-level measures of discipline, crime, and violence data. The correlation is not a strong one. “The relationship between school safety and chronic absenteeism is not consistent across the three school divisions or Virginia,” they write. “In Petersburg, the safest schools have the highest rates of absenteeism.”

The authors also examine the idea that students attending new schools might have a more difficult time adjusting, thus making them more prone to absenteeism. There the data seems more consistent. “Transitioning students are roughly 60% more likely than non-transitioning students to be chronically absent in Norfolk and Richmond and 50% more likely in Petersburg.”

The authors call for more research to focus on schools and school divisions with high concentrations of high-poverty students that have done a better job of reducing absenteeism and identifying the practices they employ.

Bacon’s bottom line: Translating the study’s findings on “transitioning students” into plain English, it seems entirely plausible that new kids in school, especially middle and high school, have a tougher time fitting in. Social cliques are already established, and it takes greater effort to find acceptance. Some kids may get discouraged, and they may skip school more frequently as a result. This phenomenon may be more pronounced in schools dominated by lower-income kids less indoctrinated in the middle-class mores of “put yourself in their shoes,” and “be nice to everyone.” Sadly, schools are powerless to address the reasons why low-income households, which are vulnerable to housing evictions, move to new districts in the middle of the school year.

Ferris Bueller -- not your garden-variety chronically absent student.
Ferris Bueller — not your garden-variety chronically absent student.

On the other hand, some of the analysis seems ludicrous, such as the idea that students who chronically skip school might be “hanging out with friends at the beach” or “going on a family vacation.” Really? How many low-income households send their kids on spring beach week or take family vacations together? Ferris Bueller wannabes are not the problem.

The most muddled thinking involves the relationship between absenteeism and school safety. The only hypothesis considered in the study is that students might be more likely to skip school if they do not feel safe at school. That idea is plausible to the extent that some students who fear bullying might wish to avoid their tormentors. But it is just as likely that the students most inclined to inflict violence upon others tend to be the same students who are chronically absent. As the authors themselves acknowledge, the absentee numbers include time absent due to suspensions. Why do students get suspended — usually because they have gotten into fights or otherwise behaved violently.

Which gets us to a related matter. It’s not the absenteeism itself that causes students to do poorly in their studies, although missing class certainly doesn’t help matters. The kids who skip school are also the ones most likely to act up in class, disrupting the teaching of everyone. The authors themselves observe, “There is also evidence that having chronically absent classmates lowers the achievement of students who are not chronically absent themselves.” But somehow Miler and Johnson overlook the common-sense observation that the problem doesn’t arise from the troublesome students being absent, it arises from them being present — and disrupting class! Needless to say, these troubled students have other issues — disabilities, bad attitudes, whatever — that make them less motivated to succeed academically.

Finally, I find it astonishing that academic researchers could ignore the role of what some call the “lure of the street.” Some school kids just find school boring. They’d rather be where the action is, and in the inner-city school systems examined here, the action is associated with the street culture of sex, drugs and partying — basically, the same activities that many affluent kids engage in, with the difference that affluent kids are raised in households where they are expected to get grades good enough to gain them admission into college.

In the final analysis, the study was marginally useful in moving the debate over absenteeism in a useful direction… but only marginally.

(Hat tip: John Butcher.)

Upadate: Here is Butcher’s take on the absenteeism data.


  1. Larrytheg

    Congrats to Butcher for drilling down to the school level. That sheds some important perspective on it.

    and believe it or not – absenteeism is a problem in elementary school.. parents DO take their kids to Kings Dominion, and to grandmas and other places and some kids stay with different relatives when the family situation changes… so you need to see the data to know that it’s not just one’s preconceived (biased” views of what it is and is not.

    The problem with data these days is that it’s a slice, a snapshot and can lead to wrong conclusions that appeal to one’s biases if one is not truly objective.

    Conflating data is a huge issue these days.

    People are not as interesting in truly understanding the data as they are in having the data confirm their own views.

    I think the researchers are on the right track but they need to dig deeper like Butcher was doing and then look at the grades also because Elementary school is a bigger problem than some folks suspect and it’s in elementary school where kids are given the idea that if they don’t want to go to school – they can do other things – when the parents themselves are establishing that as the family habit that then continues for the rest of their schooling.

    bad habits start early….

    1. Acbar

      Agreed. But as to “The problem with data these days is that it’s a slice, a snapshot and can lead to wrong conclusions that appeal to one’s biases if one is not truly objective” — the data itself can also be manipulated to produce conclusions that are not warranted — e.g., by arranging for potential low-scoring students to miss their SOL tests.

  2. Larrytheg

    there is a persistent theme here – in my view – to accuse low-income folks of character flaws that contribute to things like absenteeism… low scores.. etc…

    I don’t think that’s particularly helpful in the discussions – even if it is true …. it does not get us to what we need to do to address the issue.

    we do very much have multi-generational issues with some demographics with respect to access to a good education – as well as their own lack of initiative in pursuing it.

    but it helps no one to continue to harp on their perceived shortcomings… as if “it’s their fault and nothing we can do about it”.

    Some schools I know of – work very hard to institute a variety of events beyond the school day – to attract the parents and get them more involved in their child’s education – to include attendance.

    it’s a tough job. Teachers are asked to prepare for these events and attend them – outside the regular school day – in the evenings.. after they’ve spent all day in school, are worn out and lose planning and grading time … to attend the events.

    Perhaps other things should be considered and done – I’m all for it – but the continuing mantra that poor folks , bad parents and bad teachers are responsible for the “failure” is a meme that reveals (to me) more about the folks who promote the meme – than the kids themselves – who need whatever works to get them to attend school, learn, and grow up to get a job and not need entitlements.

    it all makes perfect sense – unless one is bound and determined to make it a blame game.

  3. Larrytheg

    that’s sorta like saying ‘no one is the blame for highway congestion” or airline delays…. or bad cell phone reception, eh?

    you guys just have a pathological urge to blame for whatever ills… eh?

    we have problems… it’s not that we have nothing but failure… it’s sorta like blaming your body for the warts you don’t like.

    buck bup bacon…. you’re supposed to get wiser as you age , you know… but I realize it’s kinda gone out of vogue these days…….

    1. Larrytheg

      problems like these are not just one cause and not just one to blame…

      and it started with mom/dad and their mom/dad not getting an education and in turn gained no real innate appreciation of the value of education to pass on to their kids…either – it’s a cycle…. how do we break it?

      and not just inner city… coal mines, manufacturing – even agriculture …. moonshine, drugs, disability and entitlements… prison… etc…

      If mom/dad got a crappy education – why should we be surprised that son/daughter don’t see school as worth attending – either?

      you want to find someone to blame for this?

      what good is blame if …. we all stand to lose downstream with social and economic consequences for all of us?

      blame gets us nowhere… and it actually impedes efforts to address it – and no – it’s not going to solved by some guy with a silver bullet idea…. or voucher schools…

      every kid that can be kept in school.. every 1% we can improve on absenteeism… does count… and is worth the effort even if there are also continuing failures…

      when I look at Butchers list I see a huge diversity in the numbers… If we did that same approach with schools in coal mining country what would we see? How about in Martinsville where manufacturing has declined?

      Could we “map” across all these diverse geographic places – and see a common thread that closely correlates low income to absenteeism? Perhaps worth researching….

      to this point – we’ve basically dropped this in the lap of the schools – by forcing them to report the data – transparency and accountability” … so blame can be affixed… mind you

      so no wonder teachers and administrators don’t want any part of it… who would?

      but a curious thing – if you look at Butchers list – does that mean there are a lot of “bad” teachers at some schools and “good” ones at others… and if you fired all those bad teachers -who would want to take their place unless they had no other options? And that’s the kind of replacement you’d be hiring?

      doesn’t sound like a solution to me….

      1. baconius

        If mom/dad got a crappy education – why should we be surprised that son/daughter don’t see school as worth attending – either?

        Larry, many generations of Americans saw education as the path to upward mobility, encouraged their children to study hard, and made financial sacrifices to send their children to better schools/college. Americans who aspired for better things for their children came from all races, ethnicities and religions (although from some more than others, just take a look at Jews and Mormons). So, the answer is, we should be surprised — even condemning — of parents who care little about their children’s education. Your idea that people are just passive victims of social and economic forces, an idea shared by many, is immensely destructive.

  4. Larrytheg

    Jim – you are correct but have you thought that all parents were on the same timeline for that realization about the value of education?

    For instance, do you think folks who were denied an education at the same time others were accorded it – would affect that timeline?

    do you think “parents” in Virginia after the Civil War were accorded the same access to education for themselves then to pass that on to their kids?

    Do you recall that many farmers demanded that their kids be “available” during harvest season?

    No – I DON’T think anything PASSIVE at all.. I’m talking about generations of parents and when in those respective generations the “parents’ were introduced to getting a GOOD education.

    You seem to think they all had the same opportunity and access and some just squandered it and it serves them right.

    You have a gigantic blind spot on these kinds of issues… guy!

    if the others are not your standard middle class on that standard middle-class generational timeline – it’s something wrong with them… and that folks who actually do recognize that are “apologizers for passivity..”.

    geeze guy… I DO regret the hard edge of our conversations and wish I was more capable of softer dialogue at times… my apologies… I will try to do better.

  5. Acbar

    I hope others will jump in here — but I have to say, the contrast in your (LG’s and JB’s) comments is a terrific read. You do illustrate, very well I think, two quite different ways of looking at this issue!