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Empty desks: confronting chronic student absenteeism

The Chronicle Herald, August 2, 2016


Missing school and skipping class are habit forming. When students are repeatedly absent and there are few consequences, it becomes ingrained in school culture.

More than one in four Nova Scotia P-12 students missed 16 or more days in 2014-15. That rose to one in three for middle and high school students. In most school systems this would constitute an absenteeism crisis.

A June discussion paper released in an online consultation tended to downplay this shocking revelation. Six years ago, a working committee on absenteeism flagged the endemic problem: 7.4 per cent of high school students in 2008 missed 20 per cent or more of their classes; 45 per cent were absent for 10 per cent of classes.

The proposed answer was Positive Effective Behaviour Supports (PEBS), a reinforcement framework similar to one in U.S. schools. Despite PEBS, the situation is no better and likely worse.

Chronic absenteeism is more complex than simply stamping out what used to be called truancy. Absenteeism, as defined by U.S. researcher Christopher Kearney, is legitimate absence from school. Chronic absenteeism is normally invoked when students miss more than 15 days per year. School refusal behaviour is where the child conceals absences from parents.

Just 13 per cent of all American students missed 15 or more days in 2013-14. Empty desks are more prevalent in Nova Scotia, especially from grades 7-12. Among U.S. high schoolers the figure for missing 15 or more days is 18 per cent, about half that of Nova Scotian students.

The June discussion paper tends to attribute the problem more to changing societal and family values than to school culture, discipline or evaluation policies. Turning it around, we are told, is “a shared responsibility.”

The prevailing approach of expanding PEBS to a school-wide “behaviour management strategy” can be called into question. “Improving school and classroom climate” and attempting to increase “student engagement,” championed by UNB expert Douglas Willms, appears to have fizzled.

Suspensions are way down since 2005 and credit recovery has made it far easier to graduate. Handing out more diplomas and writing off class absences is not ultimately in the interests of today’s graduates.

The SchoolsPlus program, in 182 schools, was aimed at supporting and winning over at-risk students. In promoting “school attachment,” it does not seem to be working either, judging from the atrocious attendance rates.

Provincial and school board student assessment policy and practices are an often unrecognized factor in the spread of absenteeism. The current model has all but removed assessment as a tool for encouraging effort and regular attendance. It separates marks (hard performance data) from more subjective measures, limiting teacher autonomy and essentially excusing irregular attendance.

It is now harder than ever for teachers to establish and enforce assignment deadlines, clamp down on attendance and override PowerSchool report templates that prevent the assignment of zeros.

Proposals to enforce student “seat time” will likely prove futile. Denying students credit for missing a fifth of their classes or making attendance compulsory up to age 18 fall into that category of quick fixes.

The new Student Discipline Code, introduced in 2015, may eventually have an impact. But it runs counter to the entrenched positive discipline regime and ‘soft’ assessment policies.

Without major changes in student assessment practice, we will not see a provincial turnaround in student attendance and achievement.


Paul Bennett is director of Schoolhouse Consulting and a professor of education at Saint Mary’s University.