Friday, October 12, 2012
Absenteeism and ability grouping
I get press releases on various educational studies. Recently, one from Johns Hopkins caught my eye. Prof. Robert Balfanz authored a report on chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year. Balfanz and his co-author, Vaughan Byrnes, estimate that 10-15 percent of the student population misses this much school. The report finds that "missing school matters." Chronically absent kindergartners do less well in first grade. Sixth grade attendance strongly correlates with graduating on time. This is obviously a problem for the students who are missing school, but what was noteworthy about the press release was how it was aimed at parents whose kids do go to school. "How often do your child’s classmates go to school? Whether fellow students show up for class matters more than you think," the release noted. Here's why: "Empty desks mean that teachers will either re-teach old material when chronically absent children return to school, which will slow the pace of every child in the room, or they will move ahead to new material anyway, often leading to behavioral problems as the children who have missed many days of school fall further behind their peers and disrupt the rest of the class." That's certainly a reason to be interested in what one's school is doing about attendance, but it struck me that it's a reasonable argument for ability (or "readiness" as I prefer to call it) grouping, too. If the presence of a child who's missed 18 or more days of school in a classroom is that detrimental to the pace of the class, imagine how much more complicated things get if there are children spanning multiple years of preparation. Teaching to make sure the less-prepared kids get caught up will slow the rest, and not helping them get caught up can lead to disruptions. Wouldn't it be better to make sure most classes feature a relatively limited span of readiness levels? That way all kids could move at the right pace.