The proverb below is a perennial favorite for many. It can be used to motivate or encourage initiative, especially if you find yourself in some form of a stagnant condition. While I admire the underlying philosophy of optimism and hope, there is another truth to this saying that deserves examination. Lately I have been drawn to this proverb and have considered what it means in relationship to a return on investment and educational outcomes in general.
Healthy trees tend to follow a predictable developmental progression. They experience multiple seasons before realizing their full potential. Enduring consecutive seasons without proper nourishment will stunt growth and may alter the upward trajectory or compromise the integrity of the once promising sapling. Evaluation of secondary education and indicators of college readiness often involve an analysis similar to the aforementioned tree’s development. There are multiple factors impacting the success of a middle school or high school student and their readiness for life after graduation. While much of the national and state rhetoric about public schools suggests stagnation or failure in some respect, there is a deeply troubling issue that largely goes unnoticed in K-12 education and among the public.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Chronic absenteeism is at the root of various educational issues. “Chronic absenteeism” is generally described as missing 10% or more of a school year. This amounts to around 18 school days missed in a year for most students. Moving back to the tree analogy, this is a similar phenomenon to experiencing multiple seasons without water, healthy soil, or pruning by a skilled arborist. According to Attendance Works (2013), 10% of students miss a month of school each year in the United States. Research shows a direct relationship between regular school attendance and student learning outcomes (Gottfried, 2010; Lamdin, 1996; London, Sanchez & Castrechini, 2016; Roby, 2004). There is no substitute for a missed instructional opportunity due to chronic absence. Students can’t learn if they aren’t present. Requiring summer school for remedial purposes (15-25 days in most cases) may sound good to most adults, but the reality is that the prime time for learning is the regular school year (174-180 days usually). There are far-reaching consequences for absenteeism that impact students, local communities, and our country at large. Unfortunately, this issue is rarely discussed at any level. Perhaps it seems insurmountable, but too often educational reforms completely gloss over this issue. It’s time to take a serious look at a predictable and preventable trend, K-12 absenteeism rates.
Foundation for Success
When regular school attendance is not prioritized at the primary or elementary grades the chance of narrowing instructional gaps or graduating from high school minimize greatly. “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.” When I think of that proverb my mind goes to early intervention. Currently there is a chronic absenteeism trend at the primary level in our district. For the past four years Kindergarten students have been chronically absent 18.1%, 15.4%, 17.1%, and 18.5% of the time. First grade students have slightly better attendance being chronically absent 13.1%, 13.8%, 12.1%, and 11.8% of the time and second grade students were chronically absent 11%, 9.9%, 8.8% and 10% of the time. Chronic absenteeism at this level will produce troubling results. According to Sparks (2011), “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.” Research indicates that absenteeism in middle and high school can accurately predict high school dropout rates (Balfanz & Chang,2016; Ginsburg, Jordan & Chang, 2014).
Going back to the tree analogy, you can’t expect to thrive in secondary school when you lack the rich instructional experiences in grades K-2. Regular attendance during the primary years and throughout the rest of elementary school establishes a solid foundation of literacy, number sense, critical thinking and helps foster a sense of self-efficacy. Absent foundational experiences, multiple academic and social deficits can develop and make remediation and academic proficiency problematic.
College & Career Readiness
There is a very real price students pay for chronic absenteeism, the loss of potential lifetime earnings and the independence that education affords. Habits such as regular school attendance become lifelong habits that inform workforce readiness in later years. Some of the most common things we hear from the business community is the need for employees to possess the soft skills. Employers often lament how hard it is to find responsible workers who impose a degree of self-discipline and personal accountability. Regular school attendance is critical to acquire some of these skills and for a child’s future economic well-being. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest a strong correlation between educational attainment, employment, and weekly earnings (see below).
Yes, it’s true that today is the second best time to plant a tree. However, if you are just beginning your educational journey, might I suggest to “Begin with the end in mind” (Covey), that “80% of success is showing up” (Allen), that “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work” (Edison), and “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” (Gretzky). For optimal growth, trees require regular nourishment and purposeful tending over many seasons. I see a beautiful forest in our collective future, but it takes shape one day at a time and one tree at a time.
Attendance Works. (2013). Chronic absenteeism. (VIDEO). https://vimeo.com/63368324#at=43
Balfanz, R., & Chang, H. (2016). Preventing Missed Opportunity: Taking Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence. Attendance Works.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, 2015.
Ginsburg, A., Jordan, P., & Chang, H. (2014). Absences add up: How school attendance influences student success. Attendance Works.
Gottfried, M. A. (2010). Evaluating the relationship between student attendance and achievement in urban elementary and middle schools: An instrumental variables approach. American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), 434-465.
Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Lamdin, D. J. (1996). Evidence of student attendance as an independent variable in education production functions. The Journal of educational research, 89(3), 155-162.
London, R. A., Sanchez, M., & Castrechini, S. (2016). The dynamics of chronic absence and student achievement. education policy analysis archives, 24, 112.
Roby, D. E. (2004). Research on school attendance and student achievement: A study of Ohio schools. Educational Research Quarterly, 28(1), 3.
SJSD Learns. (2017). Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow. http://www.sjsdlearns.com
Sparks, S. D. (2011). Study: Third-Grade Reading Predicts Later High School Graduation. Education Week.