When Education No Longer Matters

When public schools shut their doors and went online for Covid, there was a fairly strong argument that it was a waste of time. While some teachers extolled the virtue of their online teaching and the dedication of their highly motivated students, the harsh reality was that education took a beating and students obtained little benefit. To be fair, it was understandable, even if teachers denied it. As Upton Sinclair noted, “‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But Covid is over. Schools are open. The only thing missing are the students.

Last year, 43 percent of students in the District’s public schools were chronically absent and 37 percent were chronically truant, a statistic that counts unexcused absences alone. These dispiriting figures marked an improvement on the previous school year, showing the devastating toll the covid-19 pandemic took on attendance. And though a midyear attendance report suggests continued progress, a reset is clearly required.

The numbers are stunning. Given the ubiquitous concerns about system racism(this is the District of Columbia, after all), one might think that education was an important, if not critical, piece of an equitable future for marginalized communities, which is just a euphemistic way of saying that if black kids want to do better in life, education is really important. So why aren’t they going to school?

Research suggests that there’s no one solution to chronic absenteeism because there’s no single reason kids stop going to school. Rooting out systemic causes would be most effective: making the streets safer; the population healthier; the housing supply greater and so on. Changing the culture at schools, so that kids attend because they want to, is also key. D.C. is trying, but it is hard. The next best thing is addressing troubled students’ individual problems.

These are the reasons one would expect research to suggest, because research seeks answers consistent with researchers’ expectations. But there is nothing happening to prevent attendance now that wasn’t happening before. One thing that’s changed is buried in the above-quoted paragraph, “so that kids attend because they want to.” Does this suggest that schools aren’t fun enough for children? Is school supposed to be fun? Is everything supposed to be fun or children aren’t required to do it?

The Washington Post editorial looks to what government can do to get students to return to the classroom.

D.C. tries to arrange meetings with support teams for every student who passes a certain threshold of days missed. Yet many of those meetings — as many as 25 percent — aren’t happening. At the next absenteeism threshold, fewer than half of cases are referred to child services per protocol. The process is overly cumbersome, and school officials are anxious about ending up on an adversarial footing with their students. This points to a larger issue: Many families regard child services with skepticism, or even fear. The agency’s specialty is spotting educational abuse or neglect, not working with kids and their parents to bring them back to the classroom.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. What is glaringly missing from the editorial is any suggestion that the problem here isn’t the students, but the parents. Whether children want to do something or not is irrelevant to whether it’s important that they do something. Whether it’s eating vegetables or brushing teeth, children don’t necessarily do it because they want to, but because they are made to. That’s why they have parents.

Eventually, at child services’ discretion or if students reach 25 missed days of school, absenteeism cases are supposed to land at the Office of the Attorney General. But the rate at which that happens is also very low. And when cases reach the OAG, they often stop there; prosecutors follow a districtwide policy not to prosecute for “status offenses” such as truancy. The OAG might also send students to a diversion program, but that has happened only for about one-quarter of the 180-or-so cases that have reached the office.

What about call the kid’s parents? Tell them to get their butts into school and find out why they’re not making li’l Timmy show up. If it’s worth calling the Office of the Attorney General for prosecution, is it not worth a sit-down with mom and dad long before it reaches prosecution-level truancy?

Missing from this analysis is the flagrant lack of concern that education isn’t valued by the parents, and they are therefore incapable or unwilling to instill that value in their child. You want maginalized students to accomplish and succeed, but don’t want them to feel badly about their own failure to participate in their success, to take responsibility for their children being sufficiently well-educated to enjoy the equity they’re offered at Harvard.

Not every problem has a legal solution. Granted, many parents have difficult lives, and the burdens of their existence present some hurdles that require some governmental assistance. But that’s nothing new. This is why we have a safety net to help families. But neither a safety net nor the punishment of conditioning the safety net on children attending school is going to replace instilling the value of education in children. And that starts with their parents.

If parents don’t care about their children being educated, their children won’t care and there is nothing a school or government can do to make people believe in the value of education if they just don’t care. If parents believe education doesn’t matter, then neither will their children, no matter how many carrots or sticks government chooses to impose. They won’t get much out of their Harvard education if they can’t read or do basic math, and they will not be capable of participation as citizens if they lack the education necessary to understand how a nation functions. Education matters, and this lesson is taught at home, not in school.

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