Monday, May 20, 2024

Small: One solution to student absenteeism

One solution to student absenteeism
By Jonathan Small

School absenteeism is contributing to poor academic outcomes and other negative trends in Oklahoma.

According to a legislative study conducted last October, average daily attendance figures showed 94% of enrolled students were typically in Oklahoma classrooms in 2019, but following COVID attendance dropped to 80% at many state schools.

That has obvious negative impact on student learning and outcomes.

While there are many strategies to address that problem, one measure at the Oklahoma Capitol may improve student attendance—even though that isn’t the primary goal of the bill.

House Bill 1425 provides further guidance to Oklahoma schools regarding current law, which allows a student to be excused to attend a “released time course.” The bill provides for no more than three class periods per week or a maximum of 125 class periods per school year.

Providing implementation guidelines for a component of the Parents Bill of Rights, which is already state law, HB 1425 defines “released time course” as “a period of time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious or moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.”

Students could participate only if a parent or legal guardian provides written consent, and students would be responsible for any missed schoolwork.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a similar law in 1952. Supporters say HB 1425 simply makes the process clear for Oklahoma districts.

The obvious goal is to provide children with access to moral and religious instruction. But a side benefit is that such instruction has been linked to improved attendance.

LifeWise Academy, which operated in 320 schools nationwide in the 2023-2024 school year, provides Bible-based character education to public-school students through offsite instruction during the school day.

A 2023 review of 76 schools participating in LifeWise programming in Indiana, Ohio and Iowa, found a strong, statistically significant correlation between LifeWise Academy participation and improved school-wide attendance beginning in the first year. In the second-to-third year, participating schools also experienced lower discipline rates. (The 76-school analysis covered a combined 13,798 students.)

School officials are increasingly concerned about absenteeism.

A recent national poll of 1,031 teachers, conducted by Morning Consult for EdChoice, found 40% of teachers reported student absences had become either a little or a lot more frequent, an increase of 12 percentage points from a year prior.

The poll also found 47% of teachers reported student misbehavior had become more frequent, and 73% reported that their classes are interrupted by student discipline issues at least somewhat frequently.

Obviously, students who are not in class are not learning core academics, and those children can negatively impact other students’ progress

If HB 1425’s only benefit is to improve student attendance, it will be a success. And if the moral instruction students access because of the law impacts their outlook and lives in broader ways, even better.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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