Here’s to policy makers who don’t cut class.

So picture this.

It’s Monday in my Film and Video 12 class. The students come in and I introduce their next assignment. They will be creating a video in classic “Film Noir” style. I go over the elements of Film Noir and we get into a great conversation about what modern films have borrowed from this genre. The class breaks up into groups to prepare for their filming. I circulate, providing advice and feedback, using a formative assessment tool to monitor individual contributions to the group effort.

Sadly, Little Johnny is not in class.

On Tuesday, the students begin creating their storyboards and shot lists for their film. The class is electric with chatter as ideas about shot angles, locations and lighting are bandied about. I again circulate, listening closely, feeding advice to groups as they need it. Students work feverishly to get ideas down on paper.

Johnny is absent for a second day.

Now it is Wednesday, and time to film. Students are coming to me to sign out cameras and heading off to various locations around the building to begin filming. I madly dash from group to group, location to location, observing who is doing what in the film, trouble shooting, asking questions, taking notes.

Again, no Johnny.

By Thursday, the groups are finished filming and are now in the process of editing. Some students are sitting huddled around a computer, arguing about where to clip a shot. One student is searching online to find suitable royalty free music to put in their film. One is putting the finishing touches on a write-up about each student’s contribution.

Then Johnny walks in and says “Hey, Sir. What can I do?”

And I am left to figure out how, exactly, I am going to recreate, in any authentic way at least, the amazing, vibrant and engaging learning that has taken place over the last three days for Little Johnny.

Thus it is, and thus it has been for the better part of the last decade. This exact same scenario, repeated dozens of times a day in dozens of classrooms across our Province as teachers, administrators and, indeed, the entire system struggles with the question of what to do with absentee students.

The issue is easily as complex as it is common. There are any number of reasons why Johnny could have missed school, from legitimate illness to family vacations to simply skipping class. There is the question of how missing three days in a row compares in severity to missing three days over a semester. There is the consideration of how many other days Johnny has missed before this particular week and how many he will miss afterwards. And there is the added complication that these particular 3 days contained preparation work that can not, in any meaningful way, be recreated.

“What can I do?”  indeed.

Well it seems that in order to answer this incredibly complex question, our Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) is attempting to determine what can be done by putting out yet another public opinion survey.

And you know what? I don’t hate this one.

Now, before I get accused of over exuberance, I want to be clear. This is not because I feel in any way, shape or form that asking the general public their opinion on educational issues is even remotely comparable to authentic consultation. Quite the opposite in fact. I can honestly think of no other profession where what the public “thinks” about how I do my job holds so much sway.

The reason I don’t hate this survey is because it may actually mean, finally, that there will be some sort of clarity given to an issue that has become the absolute bane of many teachers’ existence.

The survey was launched on June 13th accompanied by what I must admit was a refreshingly non-judgmental discussion paper on the issue entitled “Be There: Student Attendance and Achievement”.  The paper revealed what might appear to some as alarming numbers. According to the data, approximately half of all high school students and almost 60% of junior high students had missed at least 11 days of school in the weather shortened 2014 – 2015 school year. About 35 % of this same population reportedly missed more than 16 days. Sadly, I would suspect that teachers are not surprised by these numbers.

For anyone who is not involved in education, it would seem that this issue should be fairly cut and dried. If a student misses classes, there should be consequences. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, little in education can be classified as simple.

In order to understand the complexity of this issue, we have to go back to 2006. That year, a woman by the name of Theresa McEvoy was killed when the car she was driving was rammed by a young offender named Archie Billard. The tragedy led to a governmental commission headed up by Justice Merlin Nunn and a report entitled “Spiralling out of control”. In it, Nunn called on schools to provide better methods of enforcing the attendance of students as laid out in the Education Act.

Unfortunately, a common policy existed in school boards at the time connecting attendance to the awarding of school credits.  If students missed too many classes, they could fail a course. The changes created in the Education Act by the Nunn Commission made this rule, for all intents and purposes, illegal.

Suddenly there was no clear connection between attendance and passing a class. Students who might be prone to absenteeism had no reason to change their habits. Students who were usually good attenders had more temptation to skip since there was little a school could do to deter them. And teachers were left to try and pick up the pieces.

By 2009, responding primarily to concerns being raised by educators, the government commissioned another report, this one focused specifically on absenteeism. Using a more recognized model of collaboration, this report made 13 recommendations for action on the issue. These included such things as a return to having students meet a minimum time requirement in class to receive a credit, and having absenteeism in younger students trigger the implementation of supports such as Community Services. Unfortunately, action on the recommendations were slow in coming. By 2010, the issue had become so clouded that the NSTU had to call upon the government to provide some clarity for schools.

In 2011, the government began to pilot a new attendance policy based on the 2009 report. However, the new policy required a tremendous amount of time and resources to implement properly, both of which were, as they are now, in scant supply. As school administrators and teachers alike attempted to implement all the steps suggested by the process, absenteeism continued to rise, and the system was, quite simply, overwhelmed.

And kids like Johnny continued to miss class.

So that is why I say that I do not hate this new survey. If it results in some clear guidelines around attendance that students can understand and that teachers can reasonably implement, I am all in.

To its credit, the survey is actually quite good, and the attached discussion paper is well worth the read. There is a particularly “teacher aware” tone to the thing, and it recognizes such issues as how it may be an unreasonable expectation for teachers to have to catch kids up on their work if they have missed school without an excuse. There is also a recognition that doing so takes time away from students who have attended class.

However, I feel I must temper my optimism. Last year around this time this same government put out a survey about homework, and the resulting document was hardly a barn burner. As well, with Bill 148 hanging over our heads and continued labour unrest, teachers have a reason to approach any new initiative from this government with caution.

Finally, it should be remembered that it was a policy change, enacted by government without proper consultation, that got us into this quandary in the first place.

Here’s hoping that during the past ten years’ of lessons on student absenteeism, our current policy makers have not been skipping class.

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Filed under Absenteeism, Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education, Student attendance, Troubled youth

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