Student absenteeism is a serious issue in public education. Concerted efforts have been expended aimed at engaging students and promoting active learning, but schools are still full of “clock-watchers” Many high schoolers regularly skip classes and, according to some inside reports, “the hallways are virtually empty some Friday afternoons.”
A recent report, commissioned by the Nova Scotia Education Department, bravely tackles the chronic issue. The advisory committee, chaired by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommends extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants. Along with those measures, the committee proposes a range of inducements to keep students in school. In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.
What’s my initial response? When confronted with a growing problem of absenteeism, Nova Scotia Education seems to be considering “compulsory engagement” until age 18. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, it’s a deeply entrenched problem. First came the carrot ( the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program and high school exam exemptions), now we seem to be resorting to the stick ( compulsory schooling to 18).
What does the education research say? Student engagement is clearly more important than attending and simply occupying classroom seats. Canada’s largest national school survey, Tell Them from Me, provided a clearer sense of the problem and identified the factors contributing to “a sense of belonging at school.” “Improving school and classroom climate” are key to “increasing engagement,” says CRISP Director Douglas Willms (MASS Journal,Fall 2008). Leading American expert, Deborah Meier (2002), sees school size as a critical factor — the smaller the school, the more likely students are to feel a sense of attachment; the larger the school, the greater the potential for standardization, alienation and absenteeism.
A few critical questions need to be asked: Why are so many kids tuning out, skipping or dropping out in Nova Scotia and elsewhere? In legislating compulsory high school attendance, will we be giving up on making school more engaging for kids? And more importantly, will everyone be graduating?