Why Missing School Matters

Missing school matters, for obvious reasons. The first and most compelling, is that if kids don’t learn to show up, it will impact their ability to successfully shape the course of their lives, and showing up for life is a learned skill. Central Texas students (and this number shocked me!) miss 2.4 MILLION days of school each academic year, costing a loss of more than $34 million dollars annually for our schools. Children suffer academically when they aren’t in class. Chronic absence is an indicator for future drop out rates. Individual classrooms are affected by absence as students miss participation in key elements of their learning. So why do kids miss so much school?
According to Communications Director, Rick L’Amie of the E3 Alliance, when kids were asked why they missed so much school, 49% of them said, it’s boring. At MAP, we think there’s more to it than that. We work with at-risk and disenfranchised youth on a daily basis, and in our work we explore a lot of serious life circumstances and issues with these kids. What I find is that our kids (and I suspect many are like them) often find it difficult to articulate the challenges they face in their daily lives. A 10 year old who misses school because her older brother got in a fight with a neighbor’s kid across the street and the fight led to retaliation which resulted in her house getting burned down and the family having to flee the neighborhood in fear, is not going to verbalize the complexity of that situation. It’s easy to say, I’m bored. But what that kid is also saying is, nothing I’m learning here feels relevant to my life experience.

This is a challenge for our educational system. More of our kids are in crisis on a permanent basis and our schools and teachers aren’t really equipped to navigate that inside the classroom. We can say, that’s not their job, but for educators, it’s important to recognize the reality of the situation. It is what it is, and that’s the bottom line. So I think the question becomes, how can we create relevance in our classrooms? How can we work with these incredibly difficult dynamics and motivate our children to learn? There are no easy answers to these questions.
Ground experience is telling us (and this is right here in central Texas) what the new reality for many central Texas students is – a life lived in poverty, full of instability, threatened at the core by lack of the most basic necessities, for many, full of violence, addiction, abuse, neglect. It’s a perfect storm of hardship, mobility challenges, and housing difficulties (among many many many other circumstances) and it’s making it more difficult for children to get to school. Once there, it makes it more difficult for them to focus and learn. Life experience is making many student’s education less relevant, and yet the crux is that a lack of education is the nail in the coffin for these kids.
It’s a point that deserves deep consideration since our basic system of education has changed little since the early 1900s when America was an agrarian society. Schools struggle just to teach a basic curriculum that will get kids capable of measuring up to standardized testing requirements. If you’ve spent any time at all inside a 5th grade classroom, you will get an eye-opening view of what our teachers are working with. The distractions are incredible. A teacher has not only the responsibility to deliver this basic education, but to manage the behaviors and attitudes of anywhere from 25 or more young people at a time. And the basics of education-reading, writing, math, science, history…they don’t even begin to cover the extensive scope of what our kids will really need to know to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.
Consider this:
For my 5th grader’s 11th birthday, I let her do 5 subjects of homework with my iphone. She quickly and efficiently retrieved almost every answer in each subject by asking Siri to do the work for her. Yet the focus of these assignments was on retrieving information, not on using it critically to examine a challenge or solve a problem. This is a fundamental weakness in American education.
Is having a solid background in the historical facts of the civil rights movement important? Of course it is! But unlike the world I was educated in (in 5th grade) we now have immediate answers to almost any fact we want to know, so why are we still focusing so much of our time on route memorization rather than project based problem solving learning.
People learn to think critically when they apply facts to real world problems. This makes learning relevant. In a study I read a while ago (and forgive me because I no longer have the link) researchers followed two groups of students learning about the American Revolution. One group learned in a traditional fact based way, memorizing dates and details, writing about events and happenings. The other group, picked one aspect of the revolution and designed a project based on that aspect.
Interestingly enough (and this surprised me because I thought that the project based learners would have learned more than the traditional learners) both groups essentially tested out equally on the material. Scores were very similar for both project-based learners and traditional learners. But here’s where the real impact of project based learning was seen: 18 months later the same two groups of students were re-tested on the material and the project-based learners retained the information at a significantly higher rate.
If we are going to examine why kids miss school, we are going to have to examine the very foundations of education. That’s a big task, but it’s worth doing, because a better future for these kids, is a better future for all of us.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Media Awareness Project.

Nina Medeiros is the co-founder and Creative Director of the Media Awareness Project, a non-profit organization teaching at-risk youth to use film-making to tell the stories of their lives and to develop employable skills for professional development. Before founding MAP, Nina founded NLM Communications, a firm dedicated to helping its clients create powerful and informative content, ranging from scripts to speeches, to promote their causes and grow their support bases. Nina is the wife of MAP Executive Director, Jesse Medeiros, who has worked in film and television for more than two decades. She tweets @AwarenessAustin.

Updated: November 26 2012