Attendance policy lacks the requested teeth

On October 1st, the Department of Education, using recommendations from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions,  will begin implementation of the much-anticipated new attendance policy for Nova Scotia schools.

For those of you following along at home, the demand for a new policy was a central theme that emerged from the teacher’s strike of last winter. As part of that immense outpouring of frustration, teachers tried to explain to anyone who would listen that they needed a device through which they could hold students accountable for coming to class. And although there are what seem to be some fairly honest attempts by the council to get at the heart of the attendance issue, I fear that there is not much in this new document that will have anyone cheering in the streets.

The new policy starts off with a recognition that, essentially, kids need to come to school to be successful, and that attending “…promotes a sense of responsibility” as students transition into post secondary institutions and the workforce. It then allows that the policy should not be punitive to students who are absent for reasons that are beyond their control,  and promises that, in such cases, “…the school will work with the student and/or their family to respond with the appropriate incentives and supports…that recognize the student’s unique situation.”  The document then lists a series of interventions, promising such things as “increased connections” between the school and home, as well as both “targeted interventions”  and “universal prevention strategies”, all of which are presumably designed to reduce absenteeism. It also makes a point of mentioning that high school students may lose credit if they miss more than 20% of a particular class.

At the risk of being labelled a habitual cynic, I must admit that, even at this early stage, I find myself questioning how this document will do anything to change the current reality.

We all understand there needs to be a recognition that some students can not, for a wide variety of circumstances, attend school. However, placing the responsibility of figuring out how to deal with such cases back on the individual schools (read: teachers/ principals/ guidance counsellors) feels very familiar.  As well, habitual non-attenders were always at risk of losing a high school credit by virtue of the amount of work they missed. If you don’t come to school, you can’t produce evidence of learning. One of the key frustrations for classroom teachers has been that when a student doesn’t attend, the responsibility for  the production, implementation  and evaluation of these supports, designed to prevent loss of credit, falls on their shoulders. The new policy does little to address this concern.

Now, to its credit, the document does set a fairly concrete time table for interventions, specifically identifying absenteeism of 5, 10, 15 and 20 percent respectfully as key benchmarks. However, where it falls short is in its recognition of the burden these benchmarks place on school  administrators. If a student reaches the 5% absenteeism threshold, their teacher is expected to contact home and speak about what supports may help improve attendance. However, once the student reaches the 10% and again at 15%, it is the administrators who are  expected to meet with the student and the parent to discuss the issue.

The implied assumption here is, of course, that arranging a parent meeting is simply a matter of picking up the phone, and that principals have ample time to do so. In some instances, reaching parents in an of itself is a huge endeavour, let alone scheduling a meeting. Of larger concern to the greater public is the extent to which teachers and principals have access to “appropriate interventions and supports” that parents have not tried. One would hope that, before meeting the meeting takes place, the DoEECD will have provided educators with a list of possible answers to parent questions like “What would you suggest I do?”

The policy contains a few other seemingly teacher friendly items that sound a great deal like the re-packaging of old ideas. One is that teachers will not be required to prepare work packages for students who miss time. However, preparing work packages has not been an expectation for teachers for quite some time, and is protected, (as much as anything can be protected these days) by our collective agreement. The one brand new item that has been added in this area seems to raise more question than it does provide answers. Under the new policy, when students are going to miss school for extended periods (for such things as participation in sporting events) they  “…can submit an educational plan [which] must be endorsed by the person leading the activity (e.g., coach, leader). The plan must be submitted to the principal, who in consultation with the student’s teacher, will review and approve the plan.”

This is obviously an effort to support participation in such events, which are, of course tremendously valuable. However, there are a few rather gaping holes. It may be, for example, that reading and responding to “Othello” may cover some of the outcomes for English 11, but there are many classes, particularly at the high school level, that are not quite as portable. As well, the policy does not provide any indication of what procedure should be followed if a teacher does not approve of an educational plan, when this consultation is supposed to take place or even, indeed, what such a plan should look like.

I do have to applaud the attempt, at the very least. And that these plans are not meant to cover family vacations comes close to addressing at least one concern expressed by teachers. However, I feel that, overall, the policy misses the mark.

As with all new policies, the proof will be in the pudding. It may very well be that this new document will improve attendance rates, and provide educators with a means to both support students and also hold them accountable, without markedly increasing teacher workload.

However, it should be remembered that this review was supposedly initiated to address the concerns of classroom teachers, and provide some tangible new strategies to encourage kids to get to class. I am not sure many will find this to be much more than a complicated re-working of the status quo.

An edited version of this post was originally published in The Chronicle Herald on October 2nd, 2017.

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