Friday, February 4, 2011


I began teaching professionally in 1999.  I have had a lot of time to think about what factors contribute to and interfere with student success.  A huge problem at my school, and in my classroom, is attendance.  More to the point, the problem is the lack of attendance.  For example, I have a student who has been absent six times and late six times in the past month.  Last quarter she was tardy 22 times. 

Our school district web site breaks down attendance data.  Of the absences this school year for my school, 25% are unexcused absences (parents neither call in nor send a note), and an additional 10% are due to planned family trips.  In fact, you can count on at least 5-6 students absent the day before and after a holiday, as if we don't teach on those days.

A typical school day in fourth grade can include adding fractions with unlike denominators; making a complete circuit with a battery, battery holder, bulb, and wires; learning the prefixes re- and un-; learning how to answer Right There Questions (including the concept that questions asking Who aren't looking for Because answers but rather the name of a character or person); learning to write a persuasive essay from a graphic organizer, and a trip to the school library to return and check out books.   That's a lot to miss in one day.  Missing many days, being a part-time elementary student -- these are things that make it impossible to learn and impossible to pass high-stakes tests. 

Please don't think I'm a fan of high-stakes tests.  I'm not.  They're specifically written to create a bell curve, which means they're specifically written so that half of the students fail.  But my job depends on my students passing; if they don't, I'm the one who's considered the failure, not the people who keep them out of school so the kids can do laundry or babysit siblings or take their monthly or semi-monthly vacation.  Why does a child need to miss an entire day of school because a sibling has a morning dentist appointment? 

It is especially critical that my students show up every day ready to learn because most of them weren't prepared for fourth grade to begin with.  Our district and state believe in social promotion.  I have students who aren't proficient in addition and subtraction.  Most of my class entered fourth grade unable to multiply or divide, and reading below grade level.  They need to be at school for every teachable moment, so that they can get caught up.  Staying home should be reserved for a very uncomfortable personal illness, and the missed work should be made up so that the student doesn't fall behind.

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