by David Safier
Interesting story out of Seattle in today's Star: Schools focus on attendance, see scores climb. It's pretty obvious that students who don't come to school regularly don't do well, but the chicken-egg question is, do they skip school because they're not doing well, or is their lack of success in school caused by poor attendance? There's no simple answer — it's not an either/or question — but the article makes a pretty good argument that, if you can get students to come to school, their achievement on standardized tests will increase.
A few Seattle area schools have hired young college graduates to keep tabs on the poor attenders, give them tutoring and, when appropriate, offer them some "I care" hand holding. The early results have been impressive, especially when students' truancy is linked to a family situation. Talking about one specific kid who was never woken up in the morning or encouraged to get to school:
“In his family, that was the culture,” [Katrina Hunt, a coordinator of the program] said. “But we became close, and that’s what made him want to come — ‘Miss Hunt is waiting for me.’ I saw that with kids again and again.”
Assuming this is a successful approach to raising student achievement — I don't know that for certain — it raises an interesting issue that the conservative "education reform" folks need to address. Without firing lots of "failing teachers" and replacing them with "great teachers," without changing the curriculum, these schools saw their overall student achievement grow. If a small, unobtrusive fix like this can pay dividends, why are the "education reformers" obsessed with their disruptive, expensive "solutions" which have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and haven't shown themselves to be very effective.
You could argue that the young college grads have only helped the most at risk kids. Or you could turn that around and say, "Amazing! These young college grads are making a difference with the hardest-to-reach kids!" And it may be that the regular attenders have benefited as well. When at risk kids come to class regularly and are motivated to learn, they're likely to have fewer behavior problems, and they take up less of the teachers' time calming them down and catching them up. Everyone benefits when the classroom atmosphere improves.
I don't want to make too much of this, because I don't know many details. But if getting kids to class more regularly with a better attitude and better preparation makes a school more successful — and it certainly makes sense it would — shouldn't this kind of remediation be looked at more closely? In fact, the feds are backing a $30 million study of the program, which is great. And it's a drop in the bucket compared to a Bill Gates money dump, which rarely comes in at less than $100 million. Maybe Gates should help fund the study, then stay the hell out of the way and see what happens.