Guest Post: Rodel Article On Absenteeism Absent Of Facts

The Bygone Blogger is back!  Thanks to Bygone for tackling an overlooked topic on this blog, that of school absenteeism.  Bygone dissected a recent Rodel article on the subject and man oh man did they!

It’s unfortunate that Delaware’s education debate is often presented in recycled “research” to buck up a particular position on “education reform.” This recent piece: “Digging Deeper: Missing Out: A Look at Chronic Absenteeism in Delaware Schools” is a case in point.

First, let’s understand that almost everything of substance that is not Delaware specific in the article can be traced back to a single Brookings Institute 2017 article on “Chronic Absenteeism.” The post employs the fairly deceptive practice of not only linking to that article, but also to linking primarily to articles cited in that article’s bibliography.

“Digging Deeper” also misattributes information in the Brookings article, which is something you can only learn by patiently clicking through all the links. Here’s an example:

“According to research from the Brookings Institute, there are four categories of school absence: student–specific, family-specific, school-specific, and community-specific.”

Sounds authoritative, right? Except that here’s the paragraph in question from the Brookings article:

Researchers categorize the underlying causes of truancy into four groups: (i) student-specific factors, (ii) family-specific factors, (iii) school-specific factors, and (iv) community-specific factors (Table 1).

Note that this sentence does not claim that Brookings did the research. As a matter of fact, if you drift down to the source note for Table 1, you find that the research comes from REL-Pacific (the Regional Educational Laboratory–Pacific–of the US Department of Education).

In other words, the author of “Digging Deeper” scraped so shallowly at the soil here that she credited a major think-tank with research done by USDOE. The question then becomes one of whether we are looking at just shoddy work, or intentional hand-waving. I’m tempted to go with the former, except that by transferring the credit for this specific hierarchy of reasons for truancy to a private think-tank gives it the effective imprimatur of objective research by disinterested outsiders. Which it isn’t. Ouch.

This is particularly important because this “Digging Deeper (not)” post plays a most intellectually dishonest game with the “student specific” and “family specific” reasons for “chronic absenteeism.” And it’s a game designed to directly target students with disabilities, minority students, and homeless students.

Let’s see how. First, we note that students with disabilities are calculated as having a 7% higher chance of experiencing chronic absenteeism than their non-disabled peers.

I could start by noting that every parent of a disabled child, and every special education teacher, and virtually every building administrator could tell you why that is. Doctor’s appointments, chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, etc. The parents of disabled students want their kids in school receiving an education as much as anybody else–probably more than most.

So let’s now look at what US DOE (masquerading as the Brookings Institute) tells us are the main reasons these students miss school:

Student-specific reasons for missing school may include factors like low academic performance and grade retention or “being held back,” lack of caring relationships with adults, negative peer influence, and bullying.

Family-specific causes could be attributed to low family income, low parent involvement to push a child to attend, at-home responsibilities, stressful events that cause home and school priorities to conflict with the other, and language differences.

Oddly enough, according to the author who is digging deeper, and US DOE, it’s not primarily that disabled students are sick, or seeing the doctor, or being in therapy–it’s that they have “lack of caring relationships with adults” or “low parent involvement to push a child to attend.”

Got that, you parents of autistic, blind, depressed, anxious, spinally deformed children? It’s you who are the problem.

If the school could just figure out some way to get your malingering little tykes in the doors, everything would be fine.

Let’s parse this a different way. Supposed I told you that minority parents are more prone to have a “lack of caring relationships” with their children, more prone not “to push a child to attend” school, and are more likely than white parents to allow their children to fall under the influence of “negative peer influence,” what would you say?

You’d probably say, “Wow, that’s a pretty racist assertion. You mean, essentially, that minority parents are more likely to be crappy parents than White moms and dads?”

Because that’s exactly what these researchers are saying. One of the few non-Brookings sources that this author cites directly is a 2018 NEA Research Brief on Chronic Absenteeism: “The profile of students with high levels of chronic absenteeism has not changed over the years—they are students of color, students with disabilities, and homeless students.”

Wow, it’s so simple now. Homeless kids don’t go to school enough (go figure). Disabled kids don’t go to school enough. And Black and Brown kids don’t go to school enough, and it is their RACE, not their socio-economic status, not their family structure, not any one of hundreds of other possible variables, that determines they have higher absenteeism.

So when this NEA Research Brief (according to the author “Digging Deeper”) starts to list the initial steps a school needs to take, and says, “Identifying the underlying cause for a student’s absence,” I visualize a clerk checking items off a list, “Oh, yeah, you’re Black, that explains it. We’ll have to ‘establish partnerships with community-based organizations to help meet the needs of the family.'”

One wonders exactly what the partnership with a community-based organization does to change the child’s ethnicity, or to help him or her rise above undesirable traits of truancy that are apparently causally related to skin color.

Are you getting the point yet? This “digging deeper” isn’t research, or even thoughtful reporting on research: it’s mostly incoherent garbage, and the few actual statistics about Delaware kids in the mix are meaningless. But they DO advance a particular agenda.

Look at the stats in the article for chronic absenteeism for the 19 Delaware school districts, and note first the complete absence of any data from charter schools. Note then that the state average is 14% of students having chronic absenteeism (which, by the way, even US DOE admits has no formal definition). Laurel is the 7th lowest district in terms of chronic absenteeism, and Colonial is the 15th worst. How much difference is there between them? The state average is 14%; Laurel’s average is 13%; Colonial’s average is 15%.

Nine of the state’s nineteen school districts fall one percent lower or one percent higher than the average. Remove the two single schools included in the report as if they could be compared to entire districts (Polytech and Sussex Tech), and you find that over half of the school districts in the state fall within a 1% swing from the average. The list, which does not even attempt to break down the districts by size, or individual schools, or relevant categories, is meaningless. It literally tells you nothing of value.

What this piece is actually intended to do is shill for the new Delaware school accountability standards, which attribute 10% of a school district’s rankings to its attendance scores. Which is also meaningless because … even if chronic absenteeism could be causally related to poor academic performance (and most of the articles don’t even really assert correlation, much less causation, they merely cite descriptive stats)… even if you could do that …

There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that because other children are chronically absent it impacts your child (who is not chronically absent) in the slightest. In other words, there is zero reliable information to suggest that chronic absenteeism rates of the school’s population is in any way, shape, or form, an indicator of school quality.

It just sounds good, and it provides another entry point for high-paid consultants and performance-targeted grants.

Which won’t, by the way, work. Almost every article you can find researching truancy-reduction programs comes to the same conclusion: we think it might be working but the statistical evidence to support that feel-good conclusion is lacking. But it’s such a good idea you should do this anyway.

Here’s the final shovelful of the “deep dig,” and it is not only vacuous, but filled with platitudes:

Delaware’s data on chronic absenteeism present a first step in tackling the issue. Armed with new data, schools can begin to determine the best solutions for their students so that everyone can be present and learning. In order for students to get an education, they need to be in the classroom.

Let’s try that last sentence again: “In order for students to get an education, they need to be in the classroom.” Sounds good, but any successful homeschooler or the parents of a disabled child could tell you that it’s BS.

Forcing sick or disabled students into the classroom instead of taking a holistic view of their entire education, or asserting that the only way minority students can learn is by sitting in a desk (because their parents are inadequate) is rampant crap.

This article has nothing to do with research. It has to do with passing down “wisdom” from government sources (misidentified) which also mandates specific tracking programs and faux-accountability measures.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a strong case to be made for understanding patterns of school attendance and relating that to educational success. But this ain’t it. This ain’t close to it. This wasn’t intended to be it. This is a cut and paste job because somebody, somewhere, said, “Do a piece for me that tells everybody how important this absenteeism figure is for determining school quality.”

Addendum: I hate to do this, but I think it’s necessary. The article in question was written by Rodel Policy Associate Bridget Boody. Ms Boody is 2017 Penn State grad with a BA in Political Science and Women’s Studies.

So Ms Boody was not an Education major and she’s never been a teacher. She did a “teaching practicum” in the DC city schools as a Junior, and a one-year stint as an Americorps reading tutor (not a classroom teacher) in Christina before joining Rodel where she is (you can’t make this stuff up) “bringing my teaching background to the table.”

What teaching background?

I’m sure that like most new college graduates she’s passionate about “using policy to help lay the framework for equity,” just like I’m equally sure she knows absolutely nothing about the tenets of research, appropriate citation, or the difference between causation and correlation.

I’m sure she’s a wonderful person determined to do well in the world and help people.

I’m equally sure that she has no business allowing herself to be passed off as a “Policy Associate,” and absolutely no qualifications to present herself as “Digging Deeper” into relevant educational policy issues in Delaware, unless she uses only those cute red plastic shovels you buy at the Beach.

1 thought on “Guest Post: Rodel Article On Absenteeism Absent Of Facts

  1. Argghhhh!!!!!! I am not good at math- I put off getting my masters because I knew I would have to take Statistics. My Statistics professor was wonderful however and I learned many things. One thing he stressed was that without understanding how the data was collected the numbers could be “statistically insignificant”, or manipulated to give support to almost any theory. And here is a case in point. ARRGGGHHHH!!!!!!

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