Nationwide absenteeism is occurring in large numbers. School administrators, teachers, parents, and juvenile justice officials have long been concerned about the problems of excessive absences (Mueller, Giacomazzi, & Stoddard, 2006). Students miss school for a number of well documented reasons such as illness, suspension, truancy, and personal issues. Other less obvious reasons such as poor transportation, fears of personal safety, disengagement, unwelcoming schools, school policies that push students out, and family or work related responsibilities (Sundius & Farneth, 2008).
Absenteeism is divided into four types: a) chronic absenteeism, b) persistent or habitual absence, c) tardies, and d) school refusal. School refusal is a disengagement from school which is child-motivated (Kearney, Lemos, & Silverman, 2004). The three types of absences are then divided into two classifications or categories; excused and unexcused. Excused absences include student illness, death in the immediate family, court summons, religious observance, school-authorized work or activity, inclement weather, state emergency, lack of authorized transportation, and ironically, suspension (Sundius & Farneth, 2008). All other absences are defined as unexcused absences and are considered an incidence of truancy. McCray (2008) defines truancy as the act of staying away without permission and he identifies this problem as a societal problem not just an individual problem. Truancy is a dilemma which affects everyone in the educational system. Counties are subsidized with funds based on student attendance, so school programs suffer losses of state and federal funding due to non-attendance. For the youth, missing just 30 hours of instruction affects a student's academic performance (McCray, 2006; Gump, 2004), making it a stepping stone for other risk problem behaviors, academic failure, school dropout, delinquency and criminal behavior (Giacomazzi, et.al., 2006). A similar study of students with excessive absences reported risk behaviors relating to unintentional injuries, tobacco use, alcohol use, marijuana use and other drug use, risky sexual behaviors, and violence (Eaton, Brener & Kann, 2008). Risk behaviors were exemplified in absent students with or without permission, though students without permission were twice as likely (Eaton et al., 2008) to engage in the risky behaviors. Eaton et al. (2008) expressed concern that the study under represented students with excessive absences because these students would generally be absent on days that the data was collected.
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Truancy often indicates larger issues in a student's life. Students who are truant often perceive the world around them as confusing and tend not to have a sense of belonging (Lee & Breen 2007). Research suggests two personal components students deem important and central in their sense of belonging: peer acceptance and teacher relationships (Attwood & Croll, 2006, Lee & Breen, 2007; Pierce, 2006; Davies & Lee, 2006).
Students perceive school classrooms as highly complex cultural settings where meaning is socially constructed and dependent upon the blending of the individuals within the social setting (Lee & Breen, 2006). Codes of appropriate behavior can differ class period to class period and contain clues about how students will construct knowledge, learning, and meaning in their daily routine (Pierce, 2006). Teacher engaged learning becomes an issue of respect from student to teacher and students desire to be treated as an adult. Discussions regarding the lack of opportunities, course relevance, and real life opportunities persuade students to view school as antiquated, artificial, and of no real value (Davies & Lee, 2006). Students' unfulfilled needs of engagement are likely contributors for his or her decisions to leave school early (Lee & Breen, 2007)). Teachers have the power to entice chronic non-attending students back into the classrooms by reforming classrooms with active and even enjoyable relevant learning (Pierce).
Research suggests that the high school setting is a place that changes daily, where students compete for identity, acceptance, and attention (Hartnett, 2007). High school students are relying more on schools to provide a sense of belonging and often describe their school lives and identities in relationship to peers rather than family. Peer group identity at this stage becomes the central factor in the youth's developmental process (Harnett, 2007). When students experience a positive environment, as with supportive friends, generally their learning experience is positive and their overall academic experience is successful (Pierce, 2006). A common thread that runs through research studies (Pierce, 2006; Lee & Breen, 2007; Davies & Lee, 2006) is if a student does not feel a sense of belonging, feelings of alienation and loneliness develop and problems of non-attendance arise, memberships of anti-social groups are initiated, or health risk behaviors begin (Eaton, et al.) This identity becomes a central factor in their process of development and labeling students into groups. Group identities, once configured and labeled, are difficult to change (Hartnett). Students who do not belong often try to satisfy the need of belonging through membership in antisocial peer groups. Antisocial peer groups develop social networks focused on escaping school (Hartnett; Eaton et al.). These high school students often do not identify with the purpose of school and do not use the educational opportunities to their best benefit (Hartnett). These peer groups each have a unique way of seeing the academic world and how this world impacts the relationship of the school structure (Pierce).
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Schools through intentional or unintentional bias and favoritism influence peer groups to be accepted or not (Hartnett). Peer group defenses of this perceived bias are very different. These differences appear in the classroom through behavior that is positive, cooperative, and conforming to the teacher's values; on the other hand, the observed behavior can be disruptive, antagonistic and non-conforming (Hartnett). In the classroom, a student's major concern is worrying more about keeping up appearances with their peer groups rather than keeping up appearances for their teachers (Pierce). One would expect the teacher and student's agenda would meet at a central point where learning would occur, but that does not appear to be the case (Pierce). Students cite boredom, loss of interest in school, irrelevant courses, suspensions, and bad relationships with teachers as reasons why they skip classes (Pierce). Teachers, on the other hand, believe the truancy to be related to student problems with family and peers (Attwood, & Croll, 2006).
Structure and culture of the school environment contributes to how a student experiences the educational system and this experience can influence a student's absenteeism and truancy (Epstein & Sheldon, 2002). Davies and Lee's (2006) study revealed that male and female students disconnect for different reasons. Male students tend to disconnect due to relationship problems with their teachers while female students tend to disconnect due to relationships with peers (Davies & Lee).
In a study by Kearney, Lemos, and Silverman (2004), a lesser known type of absenteeism was researched; the complex problem of non-school attendance. The study focused on the absenteeism of students under the umbrella of School Refusal Behavior, which refers to a spectrum of problematic, illegitimate absenteeism that includes: youths who miss school for extended periods of time, youths who miss school sporadically, youths who skip classes, youths who are tardy to school, youths with severe morning misconduct who attempt to miss school, and youths who attend school with tremendous anxiety and somatic complaints that precipitate ongoing school non-attendance. This affliction affects approximately 28% of school aged students and is present equally across gender, racial, and income groups (Kearney, et al., 2004).
Absenteeism and truancy have been identified as one of the top 10 educational problems in the United States (Zhang, Katsiyannis, Barrett, Wilson,, 2007; DeKalb, 1999). This educational problem has been studied by schools, teachers, and researchers in the attempt to understand the influencing factors that contribute to non-attendance of students. Studies have been conducted in the hopes of identifying the influencing factors of truancy placing interventions for at-risk students who potentially will adopt truancy behaviors (Bartholomew, Hickman, Mathwig, & Heinrich, 2008).
Studies of predictors and causes of truancy have been numerous (Houston, Suh, Suh; Barrett, Katsiyannis, Wilson, Zhanz; Attwood & Croll, 2006) due to the negative serious short-term and long-term impact linked to a student's future. Truant students face declining grades and educational failure due to their non-attendance which may lead to dropping out of school. Other short term impacts isolate the student socially and foster low self-esteem and poor employment options. Truancy begins to signal delinquent behavior of violence, substance abuse, and finally adult criminality and incarceration (Mueller, Giacomazzi, & Stoddard, 2006).
Research shows predicting factors of truancy originate from four areas: school, family, community, and student characteristics (Attwood & Croll, 2006). School factors that encompass the student's perspective for influencing truancy are: a) school environment where bullying is identified or occurring in which student's sense of safety is compromised, b) students and parents locating to a new living area making adjusting to new school social settings extremely difficult, c) a student's personal negative attitude toward teachers and the teachers inability to retain control of the classroom behavior (Attwood & Croll, 2006; Sundius & Farneth, 2008). School factors that affect student truancy are: a) poor record keeping in identifying truancy, b) the administration's ineffective attendance policies, and c) the inconsistent application of those policies, and inadequate identification of at-risk students (Sundius & Farneth, 2008). Parental factors that influence a student's truancy are: a) the family's financial socioeconomic income level, b) family chaotic disorganization of an unstable home, c) child custody, d) family needs requiring the child to stay home and assist with family problems, e) parental lack of support to meet the child's needs and goals, f) child abuse, and g) teen pregnancy (Mulkey, Crain, & Harrington, 1992).
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Truancy and excessive absences are stepping stones leading to the nation's number one issue; non-graduation or high school dropouts. High school dropout rates have been monitored since the early 1980s when The National Commission on Excellence in Education published, A Nation at Risk (Suh, 2008). The author's report called for immediate action to prepare our youth for a more demanding economy. Since that time, the use of technology has expanded by leaps and bounds dramatically changing the way people live, learn, and work. Attention to graduation and dropout rates has increased significantly as can be seen by current federal priorities of No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (Christenson & Thurlow, 2004). Christenson and Thurlow; Bartholomew et al. (2008) report in every nine seconds a student decides permanently to leave high school. In the beginning of the 20th Century, the United States targeted 90% to be the acceptable graduation rate. Currently, graduation rates range from an average of 68% to 74% (Harlow, 2003; Christenson & Thurlow; Bartholomew et al., 2008; Suh, 2008). In Swanson's study (as cited in study by Hughes et al., 2007; Christenson and Thurlow, 2004) dropout rates differ considerably across racial groups. Graduation rates of: a) African American students, 50%; b) Native American students, 51%; c) Hispanic students, 53%; d) families with low-incomes, 51%; e) students who live in single-parent homes, 53%; and f) students attending large urban schools, 50% versus graduation rates of White students,75% ; and Asian students 77% (Christenson & Thurlow, 2004).
Research focus has centered on the identification of and interventions for at-risk students (Bartholomew, et al. 2008) and have found that dropouts have lower levels of achievement, lower level of aspirations when questioned about job or work prospects, more negative attitudes towards school, lower self-esteem, and lower participation rates in school sponsored activities (Suh, 2008). In the Suh, and Suh, and Houston, (2007) study, researchers attempted to identify key contributing factors to school dropouts. The study data was derived from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The collection of data was extensive and included participants' behavioral, personal, educational, and family factors. Three categories were identified within the data: those with low grade point averages, those who had been suspended, and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. At-risk student identifying predictors for dropouts can include any or all the following predictors: a) low grades, b) repetitive suspensions, c) low economic status (SES), d) number of days absent from school, e) negative perception of the teacher, f) number of household members, g) highest education attainment of mother, h) gender of youth, i) threat of being hurt in school, j) number of fights at school, k) behavioral and emotional problems, l) number of schools attended, m) use of school friends versus family members as resource for personal problems, n) percentage of peers planning to go to college, o) mother's permissiveness, and p) first sexual experience occurring at age 15 or below (Suh, Suh, Houton, 2007; Bartholomew, et al. 2008). Although the identifying factors listed are many, Hughes et al. (2007) argues that even though many predictive variables have been associated with dropping out, reliable predictive variables have not been consistently identified. Furthermore, Aloise-Young and Chavez (as cited by Hughes et al. 2007) have observed dropouts are not a homogeneous group; rather they leave school for a variety of reasons.
Categorizing factors identified in persistent high dropout rates often are referred to as "push-out" and "pull-out" (Hughes, et al. 2007). Push-out policies relate to school practices that involve grade retentions, curriculum and instruction, and school behavior policies. Zero tolerance disciplinary policies have prompted increases in arrests, expulsions, suspensions, and the eventual dropping out of students (Hughes, et al.). Landberg (as cited in Hughes, et al.) points out that accountability initiatives and the attempts to raise standards may have unintentionally pushed out of school those students who are struggling academically and who are less likely to pass the state's high-stakes exams. In addition, a student's poor school performance, attendance, or grades influences the push-out process (Rumberger, 2004). Pull-out factors, centered outside of the school include the student's level of motivation or self-esteem, the family's socioeconomic status, single-parent households, conflicting student responsibility to the family, peer and neighborhood demographics (Rumberger; Hughes et al.). Lee and Breen (2007) identified lack of social bonding, or no sense of identity, with school and a gradual disengagement process, eventually results in students permanently leaving school. Hickman et al. (2008) points out that a myriad of studies and intervention programs have been placed within high school environments, but many of these have failed to demonstrate effectiveness or have proven ineffective at significantly lowering the dropout rate across school, district, and state levels. Hickman et al. (2008) states that due to the narrow focus of these secondary education programs no consideration is given to the individual's development pathway from kindergarten through eighth grade, so the programs are ineffective and fail.
The negative impact on a non-completer in comparison to a peer completing high school with graduation and a diploma is dramatic. Data show high school dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed than their counterparts and their earnings average more than $7,000 less than those of high school graduates and more than $24,000 less than those of college graduates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Dropouts are more likely to live in poverty and on public assistance with poorer health than high school graduates. Seventy-three percent of state prison inmates and 59% of federal inmates are high school dropouts (Harlow, 2003). Levin, an economist, (as cited in Suh, 2008) recently used economic analysis to estimate the gains of dropout prevention. He hypothesized that if the United States were to spend $82,000 on each student through successful dropout intervention programs, every individual who did graduate would contribute $209,000 in additional tax revenues.