Rewrite Attendance Laws to Promote Learning, Not Seat Time

Refocus instead on mastery

An empty seat and desk in a classroom

Two depressing developments of the past couple years have given birth to a radical idea: Let’s rethink state “compulsory attendance” laws so that they’re phrased in terms of kids learning rather than years in school.

The first development is evidence that lots of students are not availing themselves of high-dose tutoring when it’s available, no matter how much they need and would benefit from it, and they’re not signing up for summer school, either.

Reasons abound. Too often, schools aren’t offering these learning boosts or aren’t offering them at times and in places that work for families, especially the low-income families whose children are most in need of additional learning. Sometimes they’re offered but parents don’t recognize how serious are their children’s learning gaps, maybe because they’re inattentive, but more likely because teacher grades and school comments mask the problem.

The upshot is that the surest cure for Covid learning loss—and other achievement woes—namely additional instruction, isn’t reaching hundreds of thousands of kids, or isn’t being taken advantage of by them, at least not with sufficient intensity to make a real difference.

The second depressing development is the growing number of districts and schools that are moving to four-day weeks, ostensibly to deal with budget woes and teacher shortages, ease burn-out, and forestall quitting. They may lengthen the remaining days to comply with state rules about instructional hours, but there are limits to how much an eight-year-old can pay attention in a day and to how much a teacher can be expected to deliver. The net effect of shorter weeks is to shrink effective learning time just when millions of U.S. students would benefit from having it extended—which, after all, is what summer school does.

Under today’s rules, however, that widening deficit won’t interfere with promotion to the next grade, with graduation from high school, or with satisfying the state’s compulsory attendance law—because all those things are framed in terms of years spent or courses completed, not skills and knowledge acquired. So the deficit will accumulate from year to year, akin to compound interest.

That U.S. students don’t spend as much of their lives learning as their peers in other lands has been known for decades, as has the fact that they need to learn more—and would if they spent more time studying. Maybe, finally, today we’ve reached an inflection point where, with the help of better assessments, lots of 24/7 technology, and much greater concern with “readiness,” we should ease off the focus on time and refocus instead on mastery.

We’ve seen much discussion of schools getting away from “Carnegie units” and instead using demonstrations of mastery to determine when a student is ready for the next lesson, the next unit, the next course, the next grade—or graduation itself. It’s a powerfully good idea that would individualize pupil progress through school (thus better serving everyone, including gifted learners and youngsters with disabilities) and result in graduates who are actually prepared for what follows.

Nor is it completely far-fetched. A few states require demonstrated mastery of core subjects in order to graduate from high school, and half the states have enacted some version of third-grade “reading guarantees,” such that kids aren’t supposed to start fourth grade until they’ve acquired basic literacy.

Yet most of American K–12 schooling is still based on age attained and time spent. State “compulsory attendance” laws are invariably framed in terms of birthdays. They start as young as age five and go as high as nineteen, requiring from as little as ten to as much as thirteen years of compulsory schooling. Save for the exceptions mentioned above, however, they’re silent about learning. They don’t require that one master the three R’s before exiting school, much less become proficient in STEM or the nation’s history or its civic arrangements. Leading one reasonably to wonder what exactly is the point of “compulsory attendance”? Is it just to keep kids off the streets so they don’t get into trouble or compete with adults for jobs or (alternatively) get exploited by adults wanting them to work instead of attend school?

Isn’t it time to consider rethinking “compulsory attendance” in terms of achievement rather than time spent? On the up side, this is how to thaw our frozen system into individualized progress whereby kids move at their own speed and move on when they’ve learned something, not when they’ve put in a certainly amount of time. It would do great things for most kids. But I can already hear the yelps, not just because of the enormous disruption that it would require of our rigid school organizations and the associated dollar costs, but also alarums about forcing young people to drop out rather than waste away in classrooms as they get older and older because they haven’t yet mastered chemistry or poetry.

So let me not suggest that kids be required to stay in school longer than age sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen, but also that they not receive diplomas until they’ve reached mastery in relation to state standards for core subjects. Work backward from that and mastery becomes the key to promotion at every level—and “school days” and “school years” flex with kids’ academic needs, which is to say attending summer school—or “after school” tutoring—can be required for those who need it. At the very least, the additional instruction can be presented to parents as a precondition for promotion.

Let’s finally face the truth: Since kids move at different speeds, the amount of instruction that student Q needs in pursuit of mastery of a lesson, a unit, a “grade level,” etc. will differ from the amount that student R needs, which means that, yes, they’ll face different quantities of schooling. That’s the alternative to the batch-processing of today’s age-based attendance-and-promotion systems. It means treating kids differently.

Is America ready for that? If not, we’re stuck with a lot of learning gaps and learning losses that will never close.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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