The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"I dote on his very absence."...  ...William Shakespeare.

Commentary of the Day - August 3, 2004:  Absence Makes the Teen Grow Smarter?  Guest commentary by Marilyn D. Davis.

As my son's senior year of high school draws to a close -- or as he draws it to a close weeks before the final curtain -- the two of us are experiencing mixed emotions.  He is both excited about and dreading the end of his glory days as newspaper editor and noted columnist; I am sad that my firstborn child will be leaving home in only three months, but also thrilled to see the end of an era in my life: the age of Mom calling Dan out of school.

Over the past four years, I have developed a close, personal relationship with the voicemail belonging to unnamed attendance office employee who always asks me the following:  "Please state the name of the student, the student's ID, the date and time of the absence, and the reason for the absence.  Speak slowly and clearly and try not to laugh too hard because believe me, we're often laughing when we retrieve these messages."

For the first few years of high school, I was honest.  "Dan won't be in school because he has

a fever and the flu.
an emergency orthodontist appointment.
a sensitive intestinal condition that renders him glued to the toilet, figuratively speaking."
As he progressed to being an upper classman, it dawned on him that strategically missing a few classes would not cause his GPA to drop.  Often, he would stay up extra late to study for an exam, only to wake up extra early to study again.  At those times, he might ask me to call him out of his first few classes so he could better prepare for an afternoon test.  What's a mother to do?  Since he has always been a responsible student and one who earns top grades, I didn't see the harm.  However, by senior year, his requests to be "called out" -- sometimes for more than just a few hours -- were coming at me faster than I could invent reasonable excuses.

"Dan won't be in school because he has

an urgent meeting with his investment broker.
a hair follicle irregularity with secondary symptoms of lethargy.
a pathological desire for academic success to the exclusion of all other earthly delights,  including eating, sleeping, bathing, watching a Britney Spears video, and, for the moment, attending school."
Each time I left one of these messages, I half expected to receive a call from his dean, informing me that my son was dangerously close to being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a mother.  Or that I was just as close to a charge of disorderly conduct: aiding and abetting an honor student.

I wanted to believe that my actions were done in support of my son's achievements -- that any well-meaning parent would misrepresent (okay, lie about) the facts of an absence for the sake of the kid putting in extra study time.  However, I had a growing suspicion that I was doing him a disservice or, at the least, setting a poor example by my collusion in this extended ruse.

Was I losing my grip on the concept of academic integrity?  To ease my guilty conscience, I tried to think of alternatives to this behavior pattern.  I wondered if the system itself needed to change.  Maybe high schools should develop a set of attendance standards that are more flexible for the high achievers in the class.  But, I argued back at myself, in cases where state reimbursement is tied to average daily attendance figures, changing the standards could ultimately penalize the district as a whole.  Besides, such a system might be seen as discriminatory.  I was stuck.

In a final effort to resolve my dilemma, I sought help from my virtual best friend: the Internet.  I Googled my way to the home page of the National Center for Educational Statistics.  There I found a data table from a study by the University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, regarding students' absenteeism.  The study looked at attendance patterns among 8th, 10th and 12th grade students in 1983, 1991 and 2000.

The bottom line, which will come as no surprise, is this:  a greater percentage of 12th graders cut one or more classes than do their younger counterparts.  The study also found that the rate of absence due to illness was relatively constant among all grades over the three years.  Between 56 and 60% of students missed no days during the four-week period.  (None of them were named Dan.)  As with class cutting, the number of days students skipped school increased as students aged.

But most interesting to me was the data on absence for reasons other than illness, cutting class, or skipping school.  Once again, seniors topped the charts for all three years.  Nearly a fourth of seniors missed two or more days of school during the four-week period for these "other reasons."  Roughly another 20% missed a single day.  If my chart-reading skills are any good, we could be looking at the start of a trend: a whopping 4% or more 12th graders reported absences of one day or more for "other reasons" in 2000, compared to 1991.  The two other grade levels showed a smaller increase.

Although the other reasons are not specified, I figure Moms calling kids out for being sick when they are really at home studying had to account for at least .01% of these instances.  So I wasn't really manipulating the attendance system -- I was merely a contributing factor in a growing national trend.

I immediately felt better.  And I stayed that way until Dan showed me the "senior issue" of the school newspaper.  On the survey where kids voted for "cutest couple" or "most likely to succeed," Dan came in as first runner-up for "most likely to get called out of their own funeral."  Ouch.

©2004, Marilyn D. Davis
Marilyn D. Davis works in community college administration and lives near Chicago.  She is also a freelance writer whose main web site is

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP wonders if senior ditch day is included in "other" absences.  But seriously, as long as K-12 funding continues to be linked to average daily attendance, parents need to exercise some responsibility with respect to unnecessary absences.

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