Should Schools Be Rewarded for Absenteeism?

The soft bigotry of low expectations is back and bigger than ever

A teacher stands at the front of an empty classroom

I recently had a conversation about absenteeism that I found exasperating. So did the superintendent I spoke with, I’m sure. You can judge who had more cause. The quotes here aren’t verbatim, as I jotted them down afterwards, but the gist is accurate. As Dave Barry would say, “I’m not making this up.”

The superintendent had cornered me while I was waiting to go on stage for a speaking engagement, and the topic of chronic absenteeism came up.

“Almost half our kids missed at least ten days last year,” he was saying. “A third missed at least 40 days. That’s double what we saw five years ago. That’s why we need to change the state funding formula.”

“Change it how?” I asked.

Photo of Rick Hess with text "Old School with Rick Hess"

“To emphasize district enrollment. Right now, average daily attendance drives funding. That punishes a system like ours where only 70 percent of kids are there on a given day.”

“It punishes you?” I repeated. “If only 70 percent of your kids are there, you don’t need as much money.”

“You’re wrong about that,” he said. “None of our costs decline when kids aren’t there. We still need to pay all our staff, purchase all our materials—nothing changes. Truth is, we should be getting added funds because trying to support the students who aren’t there requires extra resources.”

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “You’re telling me that you want the state to give you extra dollars if your students aren’t showing up?”

He steamrolled my skeptical query. Maybe I should’ve arched an eyebrow. “That’s right,” he explained. “We’re urging the legislature to make the funding formula more equitable.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “You want schools where students show up to get less funding so schools with empty seats can get more? That rewards schools which aren’t doing their job! How on earth is that equitable?”

“We’re focused on the needs of learners,” he said. “When you start talking about ‘rewarding’ schools, it sounds like you think schools have control over whether students come. We don’t. We’re serving marginalized kids in struggling communities. Our students have to work and watch their siblings. Many are homeless. We’ve got migrant students and families living with the legacy of white supremacy culture. Just surviving each day is an accomplishment.”


“Look,” I said, “Some kids face more challenges than others. Absolutely. But I don’t buy that schools are helpless. They can ensure they’re worth attending and have staff talk to families or knock on doors. They need to rethink transportation, educate parents, and set expectations. It takes work but it’s doable. Sounds like you’re throwing up your hands and telling me no one ought to be held responsible.”

He shook his head. “That’s a very simplistic, very privileged view of the situation,” he sputtered. “Maybe you’re not familiar enough with what we’ve learned about anti-racism, but it sounds a lot like you’re blaming the powerless for their plight. We’re here to serve them, not blame them. And it’s not just about making kids come to school. We need to appreciate how complicated their lives are and respect community norms.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought we agreed that truancy was a problem. Heck, given compulsory education, it’s kind of illegal. But expecting kids to come to school is disrespectful?”

Subscribe to Old School with Rick Hess

Get the latest from Rick, delivered straight to your inbox.

He was clearly as frustrated as I was. “Of course, it’s good for kids to come to school,” he said. “But we can’t stomp around giving orders and casting blame. We can’t just tell school staff, ‘Go knock on doors.’ It needs to be a co-created partnership that centers on equity and inclusion.”

That last line I remember pretty clearly, because I thought it sounded a lot like satire.

“All right,” I said, “let me get this straight. You’re saying that a school where only a handful of students show up should get funded as if everyone was there—with a little extra on top—because there’s nothing the school can do?”

He kind of sighed (and clearly thought that I just didn’t get it). That’s when I got a tap on the shoulder that it was time to go on stage.

Walking away, I found myself wistful for the days when there was widespread agreement that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was a bad thing. Now, under the sway of a truly perverse notion of “equity,” sophisticates have refashioned low expectations as a sign of compassion and moral superiority.


Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College