D.C.’s New Emergency Attendance Policy: A Compassionate Plan or Just a Way to Get Kids Over?

The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reports that the Washington D.C. Public School District has instituted a new, emergency attendance policy to cope with chronic absence by many students—a policy that will also allow some students to graduate this year even though they missed many days of school. The District’s creation of this emergency policy surfaces some serious issues about what it means to go to school, what it means to graduate, and how schools can work with masses of students experiencing the disruptions caused by deep poverty.

It’s an important debate to have, but a graduation crisis is probably not the right context for a thoughtful resolution.

You’ll remember that in Washington, D.C., under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores. More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what.  They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising the graduation rate.

You’ll also remember that last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes.  Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated. There had also been lots of emphasis on superficial projects that had been assigned for so-called credit recovery.

Earlier this month, Perry Stein reported, that as the 2018 school year ended, the Washington, D.C. City Council passed a law permitting chronically absent students to graduate: “High school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class would still receive their diplomas under an emergency measure approved by the D.C. Council, even as the city remains mired in a graduation scandal… The vote set up a potential showdown between the council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect. Bowser’s administration has said it opposes the measure….” By mid-June, Bowser still had not decided whether to sign the emergency law.

The school district’s new emergency rules announced last week would appear to be designed to appease members of the Council without Bowser’s having to sign the law. The new rules appear to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.” The new rules would still fail students with more than 30 unexcused absences during the school year.

Here are some questions that occur to me as I read about this new policy:

  • Should there be different expectations for students who cut school because they don’t care and students who cut school because they have to be responsible for a younger sibling or who cut school because they accompany their mother to eviction court?
  • If students are working jobs during school hours, can they be said in any way to be attending school?
  • Does it matter if students come to class regularly?
  • How does chronic absence by a large number of students affect the work of teachers and the dynamics of any classroom?
  • How can a school accommodate a large number of chronically absent students coming and going on different schedules?
  • What sort of makeup projects or exams can be designed that require the same sort of understanding of a subject that students regularly participating in class would likely gain?

Our nation’s school accountability policies under No Child Left Behind and its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act evaluate and rate schools and teachers by the test scores of their students and school graduation rates. What does this year’s Washington, D.C. graduation scandal—reflecting outrageous rates of chronic absence—expose about a national policy that judges school improvement by factors that are not a reflection of what is happening in school? Washington, D.C. is not the only school district that has struggled with chronic absence. Other districts are coping with this challenge by creating incentives and outreach programs to try to increase the number of students who are in school.

It seems important that Washington, D.C. is being forced to acknowledge publicly the kind of challenges students bring to school—family issues we pretend do not exist as we assume that all schools address the same sort of student needs. A wealthy suburban school district can set rules for students whose primary life responsibility during adolescence is attending school. But what about school serving students with a mass of other challenges?  If the D.C. Public Schools can meet students’ needs with more flexible scheduling and other accommodations to help students participate fully and do the work, that would be a welcome innovation other school districts could consider. But surely flexibility and accommodation should not reduce or replace academic rigor.

While we might understand why D.C. Council members sympathize with students who, due to their family challenges, cannot get to school, aren’t there good reasons for expecting students to be in school—especially if we expect to award a diploma to mark each student’s accomplishment of finishing high school?  Doesn’t society have a responsibility to set a better economic foundation for families so that students can comfortably fulfill their responsibility to be in school?  If that were the case, we could assume that students’ cutting school ought to be an infraction with clear cut consequences.

Rright now in the Washington, D.C. Public Schools—a school district that has made raising the graduation rate the single metric by which the District can tout itself as a national model—it will be important to ensure this emergency plan isn’t just a way to get students over and brag about raising the District’s graduation rate. The District will need to study carefully the reasons for seemingly outrageous rates of chronic absence among adolescents and announce clear rules for student attendance.

Most important, the District will need to demonstrate that any new policies designed to accommodate students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students will complete a full academic program.