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Bueller? How School Absenteeism Went From Silly Movie Plot To Sinister Epidemic

empty wooden desk chairs in classroon
Image CreditDuoNguyen/Unsplash

Mr. Rooney would lose his mind.


The New York Times published an article last week noting that chronic absenteeism in American schools has “exploded,” reportedly transcending narrow silos of region, race, class, and age. But why wouldn’t students skip school? These days they aren’t missing out on much.

The most powerful quote of the Times piece summarized the essence of the new reality facing American educators: “Our relationship with school became optional.” It turns out parents have decided school isn’t the pressing priority it once was and that bargain family vacations, running errands, or just taking random days off are paramount to the demands of the traditional school schedule. 

As with almost every new development in education, those of us on the front lines of American education are already acutely aware of the staggering number of empty desks on any given day. Many students are, at best, dependable three days a week, overwhelming numbers miss at least one day a week, and precious few aim for perfect weekly attendance, even in the honors courses.

Where are the Ed Rooneys today? Can anyone imagine a school administrator flipping out about “nine absences” in 2024? He’d be chasing down 90 percent of the student body in perpetuity. Ferris Bueller would get a gold star. 

The dirty little secret in the AP and Honors world where I teach is that our most involved students miss instruction time with utter alacrity and usually without a scintilla of shame. They have this game, that field trip, or any number of extracurriculars tyrannically tugging at their blasé commitments to the classroom. 

I am an admitted curmudgeon about absenteeism — begging and pleading with my students to tell me when they know they are going to be absent so I can plan accordingly. I am actually a little proud of the fact that missing students can’t “just get the notes” from a friend or “get the work online.” Of course, teachers should help students catch up — and I do. But class time should be unique and difficult to duplicate in isolation. For the chic, young, and hip teachers who are afraid to admonish the endlessly absent, the reality is demoralizing, especially in an era in which “accommodation” and “grace” are pedagogic commandments superseding quality instruction.

Here is a disturbing theory: Modern absenteeism is about much more than distorted attendance habits forged in the fires of the Covid-19 years. It is about more than bad parenting or the availability of class materials through digital portals and platforms. The harsh truth no one wants to admit is that absent students aren’t missing much. Students can miss school because there are no consequences. Gone is the era in which students with a sniffle or teenage fatigue force themselves out of bed for fear of missing out on critical class content. The opportunity cost is virtually nothing. 

In short, when school gives little, it can’t ask for very much in return. 

Why not stay home and play the latest iteration of “Fortnite” if our students can just get the make-up work online? (They do, by the way.) Why not sleep in since the teacher is forced to extend deadlines and provide alternative assignments for missing activities no matter why the student is missing? Today there is no distinction between a genuine absence versus an arbitrary one — an ethos of relativistic nonjudgment is the decree of the day.

This Faustian compact permeates our education system. Teaching with low expectations and little accountability is much easier than holding young people to account for their shoddy behavior and poor performance. Insisting on respectful behavior, setting a high bar, and refusing to let students listlessly stew in their own cauldrons of disengaged indifference actually takes a lot of dedication and teacher professionalism. Who wants to work that hard? 

But the kids are smart. They know the new reality. 

They know their counselors will pressure senior teachers to pass them even if they haven’t done the work or been in class. Why? Because schools aren’t judged by what their students know but by their graduation rates.

The kids know they can push for a 504 plan (a list of accommodations teachers must legally provide in their classrooms), which insists on things like flexible due dates and as much time as needed for exams, all of which students use as cudgels to remind their teachers not to push too hard or insist on too much. I am even starting to hear teachers mention plans that stipulate open notes and the use of online resources during exams. Almost every exchange student I have had in recent years describes the American education system as a “joke” or “easy.”

If you thought inflation was bad at the local grocery store, try it at the neighborhood school, where more students are on the honor roll or principal’s list than not. In 1990, high school GPAs averaged 2.68. By 2019, they had risen to 3.11. Studies show that in some instances, Covid inflated GPAs and depressed SAT scores

Meanwhile, last year, an extraordinary 81 percent of superintendents said they believe behavior problems have significantly worsened since 2019.

It’s no wonder the kids don’t want to go to school. It’s too easy. It’s often chaotic. But the consequence of this will be a generation that has a fraction — a small, small fraction — of the knowledge or capacity of previous generations. Throw in TikTok, a lethargic antisocial lifestyle, and moral decline, and we all know how this ends. 

Maybe it’s the adults and not the kids who have not shown up for most important work of all. 

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