How to address a national crisis: Chronic absenteeism


American students are skipping school in record numbers, a crisis that is so acute that it became the lead story in The New York Times recently, as well as the subject of the Times’ podcast series, The Daily

The lead story is long on anecdotes, graphs, and other data. It’s also chock-full of quotes from experts, but no students are heard from. No teachers either.

Another serious problem with the reporting, in my view, is the lack of context. The reporters place the blame for the epidemic of chronic absenteeism on COVID-19, making no mention of three other deep-rooted causes: 1) the right wing’s long campaign against “government schools,” which has helped create widespread distrust of many other public institutions; 2) a decades-long obsession with standardized testing that has made many kids feel like numbers, objects to be manipulated; and 3) a mental health crisis among adolescents, caused in part by their heightened anxiety about school shootings, that makes many kids genuinely afraid to go to school. 

Let’s start at the top. Ronald Reagan routinely referred disparagingly to public schools as “government schools,” meaning, of course, that they could not be trusted. The MAGA movement has amplified that cry, politicizing education, taking over school board meetings (and actual school boards as well), driving away qualified veteran educators, and causing would-be teachers to decide to find other lines of work. Schools that ban books and restrict discussions are not exactly welcoming environments for young people. 

Although the trend to see students in terms of their test scores probably dates back to the 1988 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” George W. Bush and Barack Obama ramped it up, big-time. In other words, Democrats and Republicans are equally responsible for the second major cause of absenteeism. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” prioritized student test scores in math and English at the expense of almost everything else. Most public schools either reduced or eliminated extracurricular activities like drama, journalism, and music. Recess and free play also went by the wayside, as did “nonessential” courses like foreign languages and social studies. The message to students was clear: The school cares only about my test score, not me … so why bother?

Cause No. 3: Yes, COVID shut down many public schools, depriving young people of opportunities to socialize, to get accustomed to being with others and dealing with whatever issues arose, but the rash of widely publicized school shootings — and government’s failure to address the crisis — have created another legitimate reason for students to opt out of school. I met recently with a high school history teacher, a 17-year veteran, who told me his students regularly practice how to respond to “an incursion.” Mental health challenges are genuine, widespread, and perfectly understandable, he told me. 

The next day I met with another teacher, a young woman who is just finishing her fifth year teaching fourth grade in a charter school in Brooklyn. Students at her school have learned what to do if trouble arises. She also said absenteeism is an issue, and she’s certain that it will spike dramatically once state tests are over. Both teachers are concerned about the quality of incoming teachers — the pool of talent is smaller and less impressive. I infer from their comments that this development is a consequence of the attacks on teaching and teachers: “Who in their right mind would want to teach today?” is the question that has hung in the air.

If I were reporting this story, I would do what we did in 2012: Talk to young people. A school district on the Mexican border had an abysmal dropout rate, so its new superintendent went out and found kids who had dropped out, and asked what it would take to get them to come back. More challenges, he learned, and so he created opportunities for kids to earn college credits while going to high school. A few years later, a bunch of high school seniors received both their high school diplomas and their 2-year community college degrees. Remarkable story, and a win-win-win for everyone.

Adults concerned about chronic absenteeism ought to be trying to get young people to want to come to school regularly, not simply to “attend school.” To do that, we need to make schools interesting, challenging, and safe. Stop treating kids as numbers. Stop asking “How smart are you?” and ask a different question about each child: “How are you smart?” 

Here are four specific steps that will bring kids back: 1) Restore the full range of extracurricular opportunities, because most kids come to school so they can do interesting stuff with their friends; 2) Homeroom in middle and high school should become an extended period, not just a quick five minutes when attendance is taken. Make daily homeroom a pressure-free time when students can catch up with friends, forge new relationships, finish homework, or even take naps. “Home” is the operative word here; 3) Expand course offerings to include some college classes and vocational training opportunities. 

Step No. 4 deserves its own paragraph: To end chronic absenteeism, make schools safe. The first step toward safety is to acknowledge that school safety is a three-part concept. Students deserve schools that are physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe. Emotional safety means that bullying and cyberbullying are not tolerated. Intellectually safe schools celebrate curiosity. In these schools, adults encourage students to admit when they do not understand or are confused, often by modeling that behavior. Intellectually safe schools don’t treat kids as numbers, but as growing and changing individuals. Young people who are treated with respect are unlikely to bring their dad’s AK-47s to school.

More can be done to bring young people back to school, but concerned local educators can take those four steps to begin the process. 


John Merrow, a two-time recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award, lives in Edgartown.