Schools lay tender trap for truants

The goal of boosting school attendance, by finding truants and getting them back in class, seems as virtuous as mom and apple pie. But even as many school districts take a more aggressive stance against truancy, a debate has ensued over whether new state and federal policies will eventually sully their efforts to address the problem.

In dispute: policies that give monetary rewards to districts which manage to improve attendance rates. Depending on the perspective of those who study truancy and dropout patterns, these financial incentives to get regular absentees into school might save, or alienate, or even exploit a population living largely on the margins of school and society.

Fueling debate is one development for all to see: Skipping school has become harder in many places than it used to be. Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are just a few of the districts nationwide that have beefed up their antitruancy programs over the past two years.

Techniques vary from neighborhood sweeps in Houston to computerized recordkeeping in San Diego. Yet from school to school, one math equation remains the same - more students in class equal more dollars for the district. Where budgets are tight, schools are certain to boost cash flow by filling their empty seats.

But scholars caution that's where certainties might end.

"Truancy efforts aren't going to make much difference if instruction isn't good and if kids don't perceive it to be useful," says Prof. Richard Murnane at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to bring in all these students if you haven't addressed the deeper problems."

Truancy itself ranks as a problem with virtually no signs of improvement since the 1980s, according to Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Education Research Office for the Manhattan Institute. On any given day, about 5 percent of America's students - or 2.7 million - don't show up for school. Reasons range from boredom to bullying to family expectations to care for a sick relative.

Recent years have witnessed a flurry of fresh efforts to make inroads, however, thanks in part to the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Though the law doesn't directly address attendance rates, it does require 95 percent of students to be present on testing days. It also requires the percentage of students with passing proficiency scores to increase over time until 2013, when every state is expected to report 100 percent success.

Coupled with state aid formulas that reward districts for a higher student count, the new threat of potentially costly federal sanctions has districts across the US scrambling to do better, says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina. Attendance rates already seem to be rising in Minneapolis, he says, adding that "I would bet my last dollar I would see similar returns in other districts."

"Before, many principals would have just as soon wished Johnny Troublemaker wasn't in school," Dr. Smink says.

"But now Johnny Troublemaker has to pass that test, so that principal wants him there, where he can learn what he needs to know."

Other researchers, however, are more skeptical of invigorated campaigns to show improved attendance. Districts have more incentive now to drop from their rolls any student who jeopardizes its quest for high attendance rates, says Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. In Texas, for instance, truant students can easily drop out or disappear into alternative programs, leaving rates to be based solely on the habits of the dutiful students.

"It's really extremely misleading," Mr. Losen says. "What appears to be improved attendance could be that a whole segment of the [student] population has been encouraged to go into a [Graduate Equivalency Diploma] program, which is a far less desirable option for them.... It's the Enron of education."

Other troubling patterns can lurk beneath the surface of apparently positive attendance rates, according to Mr. Greene. For instance, attendance figures indicate nothing about the 30 percent average dropout rate in high schools nationwide, because dropouts no longer count as absentees.

What's more, he says, districts often escalate their truancy efforts at particular times of year when they must take an overall head count. Truancy campaigns tend to make news in October, in his view, because this is "peak season" for counting.

Perhaps the biggest problem with focusing extensive outreach on truants, Greene says, is that truancy is but a symptom of educational failures dating back to early grades when a child maybe didn't learn to read.

"There is some misplaced energy to recover dropouts or rein in truants as a way of boosting graduation rates," Greene says.

The US Department of Education sharply rebuts charges of mixed incentives or unwise spending on truancy programs. The Bush administration is so committed to comprehensive solutions, says associate deputy undersecretary William Modzeleski, that the Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services departments have developed complementary plans to address truancy. Participants will learn more at the national truancy conference, scheduled for Dec. 6-8 in Washington.

"It's not about pushing the kids out or letting the kids drop out," Mr. Modzeleski says. "It's about reducing truancy.... We see this not only as a school problem but as a community problem."

On the front lines as in the research centers, all indications are that student motivation is the key to boosting attendance. Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit has averted a truancy problem in part through after-school programs that "keep kids' attention every minute," says guidance counselor Frankie James. But schools with fewer resources, she says, face an uphill challenge.

"Who can keep their interest?" Ms. James asks. "The key is always engagement."

New, not-yet-published research supports that impression. According to a study by the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, 50 percent of truant students don't go to school because they don't want to go. Another 25 percent feel pushed out or bullied, while the remaining one-quarter report external problems, such as family issues.

The reason for optimism in these findings is that "75 percent of these are problems we can do something about," says Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins research scientist. And with financial incentives in place, school districts are getting creative to see what works.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, state budget cuts have hurt to the tune of $500 million for the current school year, says spokeswoman Stephanie Brady. But if the district can boost average daily attendance by just 1 percent, that means another $30 million for the district. A 2 percentage point boost would be worth $60 million.

Such incentives have the district poised to spend as much as $500,000 on marketing its new "Count Me In" campaign. Using a carrot, in addition to the district attorney's stick for chronic truants, Count Me In could mean students who improve attendance might meet L.A. Clippers players or visit the set of a movie.

Districts are still trying to figure out which approaches really work - and they are expected to keep trying as long as attendance is linked to dollars.

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