Climate change is becoming the biggest public policy issue — closer to home and in our junior and senior high schools. A recent CBC News Nova Scotia series, Making the Grade which aired in February 2016, not only looked at the plight of classroom teachers, but ripped the lid off of growing teacher concerns about, and frustration over, the deterioration in academic tone and school climate. It also exposed the leading symptom of the malaise – chronic student absenteeism and “school refusal behaviour” in our high schools.
One Nova Scotia teacher, Christine Emberley of the Bedford Education Centre, finally broke the silence. Teachers have lost the ability to enforce deadlines while they are being told by school authorities to “teach real-world skills,” Ms. Emberley told CBC News, and that’s a big contradiction. Professional teachers and parent who recognize deadline importance, she explained, are up against educators who insist, quite wrongly, that “consequences of any kind equals punishment.” School should be the safe pace to make mistakes — like missing deadlines or skipping classes –and experience consequences.
Student absenteeism is a complex problem because it has multiple causes and is deeply embedded in a contemporary high school culture which can be almost consequence-free for so-called ‘floaters.’ A young woman taught by Ms. Emberley knew there was a problem when she arrived at high school. “Pushed through with no effort –sometimes missing weeks at a time for behavioural incidents or because she just didn’t feel like going — she knew she lacked the foundational skills to succeed and the work ethic to catch up.” Giving students every opportunity to succeed, she concluded, does not mean “bypassing the lessons that teach work ethic so they can pass grade levels.”
Some 25 to 30 per cent of today’s student population are ‘turned-off’ and disengaged from schools. That was the principal finding of leading UNB social science researcher Dr. J. Douglas Willms in studies conducted five years ago. Interviewed in the Summer 2011 Ontario Education newsletter, in conversation, he pointed out that in a school of 500 students that meant that perhaps 125 teens were disengaged, frequently absent and drifting around the fringes of school life. If engaging the students is “not our job” as principals or teachers, Willms had the temerity to say, “then whose job is it?”
While high school graduation rates are climbing, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes, one out of four students is still not completing secondary school on time. Entering high school, these struggling students lapse into chronic absenteeism and ‘school refusal behaviour’ that tends to mask their disengagement and alienation. “we don’t call them dropouts anymore,” Willms noted, “we call them ‘fade-outs’ or ‘push-outs.’ ” In their final school years, few if any fail, but they do ‘check-out’ and are screened-out through course selections and post-secondary admissions selection processes.
School absenteeism is a prevalent problem for today’s schools with tremendous long-term social, economic and human costs. While American school data shows that elementary school absenteeism has remained virtually unchanged since 1994, high school attendance rates have significantly deteriorated. A 2003 American study, based upon 230 youths in 4 high schools and 1 middle school found that many students “sometimes” (29.1%) or “often” (9.1%) deliberately or completely miss school. In addition, 54.6% of students sometimes skipped classes and 13.1% often did so.
Skipping school or refusing to attend for days on end is now being described in some U.S. states as a massive but overlooked “absenteeism epidemic.” In 2012, the estimated national rate of chronic absenteeism was pinpointed at 10 per cent, representing the percentage missing 21 or more days of school each year. In February 2014, a feature story produced by Betsy Hammond for The Oregonian and aptly entitled “Empty Desks” revealed that one in five Orgeon students missed at least 10 per cent of the school year, equivalent to 3.5 weeks of school or more.
One Canadian province that has clearly identified student attendance as a serious problem is Nova Scotia. Five years ago, an NS Education Advisory Commission report, produced by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommended 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 proposed 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.
By 2009-10, chronic absenteeism, assessed in ten different N.S. high schools, was already rampant. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, was a deeply entrenched problem. Permissive discipline approaches such as the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program and high school exam exemptions had contributed to the problem, so the proposed response was compulsion in the form of compulsory schooling to 18. Extending compulsory school age was ultimately rejected by Education Minister Marilyn More, but a few band-aids were applied, including credit recovery programs and a two-year pilot project to deny course credit for non-attendance with a 20% threshold level.
Five years on, student absenteeism was still so rife that it surfaced again as a major unresolved problem. An October 2014 Provincial Review of Nova Scotia Education, with the peculiar title Disrupting the Status Quo, found that “student responsibility” was sadly lacking, reflected in their laxity in attending classes, meeting deadlines, and making a genuine effort to do their best. Such factors, including disruptive students, warranted “stronger consequences than is currently the case in some classrooms.” Under School Climate, the renewed goal was to create learning environments where “respectful behaviour is an expectation for students, teachers, and parents.”(pp. 47 and 49). The NS Education Department’s Action Plan for 2016 promises to introduce “a new student attendance policy.” Another official proclamation is now in the offing.
What’s the fundamental cause of rampant student absenteeism and disengagement, particularly in high schools? How important are the major “risk factors” identified by leading American expert Christopher A. Kearney – poverty and socio-economic status, psycho-social and mental health issues, teen pregnancies, school climate, family structure, and parental involvement? In the case of school climate, what works to develop a higher level of student commitment, belonging and connectedness? Will a student attendance crackdown be enough to change the current trajectory?