How a shift in instructional models can ease the impact of the attendance crisis in K-12 education.
GUEST COLUMN | by Kareem Farah
In K-12 education, we often ignore the issue of students being frequently absent or late to class. Most instructional models are designed as if every student is present throughout the day. And if they aren’t, we expect them to magically rejoin their classes as if nothing happened, regardless of the overwhelming challenges that kept them out in the first place.
‘Most instructional models are designed as if every student is present throughout the day. And if they aren’t, we expect them to magically rejoin their classes as if nothing happened, regardless of the overwhelming challenges that kept them out in the first place.’
Every minute of class time a student misses is a stumbling block in their ability to fully immerse themselves in the learning experience. Unfortunately, the faster those minutes pile up, the more likely they’ll fall behind their classmates, disengage with the material, and, in some cases, exit school entirely.
Today, one in three students is chronically absent, missing 10 percent or more of the school year. In most instances, these are students who want to be in the classroom, but are kept out for a number of extenuating circumstances, ranging from mental health concerns and trauma, to housing insecurity and a lack of reliable transportation.
To build equitable learning environments that recognize and honor our students’ realities, we can’t pin all of our hopes solely on solutions that may increase attendance. We have to swing toward a complete redesign of the traditional instructional model. The teaching approach we’ve all been taught – one that relies on live lectures and fixed-paced learning – is failing our students, especially those who are chronically absent. If a student misses just two days of classroom instruction a month, their academic performance can take a significant hit.
A more equitable approach – where students’ needs are met, and educators have a pathway to success – centers on a student-centered learning model. By creating bite-sized and engaging instructional videos that students can watch on their schedule and at their pace, teachers are able to abandon lectures and devote class time to promote each student’s academic and social-emotional learning, and support them as they build mastery of the content.
This three-pronged approach is advantageous for a variety of reasons:
Self-paced structures – The necessity of asynchronous learning continues to grow rapidly, especially as absenteeism rises. A self-paced approach to learning provides students with the time and support needed to master content. They can pause, rewind, and rewatch videos at home or at school until they fully comprehend the material, and build the fundamental knowledge required to successfully advance to the next lesson.
Whether they miss one day or 10 days, students can pick up right where they left off and progress through the material at a speed customized to their personal levels of mastery. Students who already fully grasp the material can access more accelerated content without waiting for others to catch up.
Blended instruction – When teachers spend class time bringing absent students up to speed, it slows down learning for other students and stirs up frustration in the classroom.
A blended learning model, on the other hand, allows students to access teacher-created videos on their own time, affording educators the freedom to work one-on-one or in small groups with students during the entirety of the class period, rather than spend it delivering a class-wide lecture.
Mastery-based learning – Students who struggled with attendance in the past would either receive a failing grade or be pushed forward only to watch their learning difficulties compound, both of which can be incredibly demoralizing.
In a self-paced and student-centered classroom, students must first demonstrate mastery before moving on to the next lesson, and a student’s mastery of content is valued over speed. Absent students can spend time at home building their understanding of the content, and then come to class ready to demonstrate mastery. Through this model, students experience less stress, feel empowered, and enjoy an immediate confidence boost.
‘In a self-paced and student-centered classroom, students must first demonstrate mastery before moving on to the next lesson, and a student’s mastery of content is valued over speed.’
As chronic absenteeism continues to soar, districts should consider reinventing the traditional instructional model to a teacher-built approach that encompasses a self-paced structure, blended instruction, and mastery-based learning, so we can develop differentiated learning environments that are responsive to all students’ needs.
When learning is tailored to each individual and supported by the latest education technology, we construct an onramp to success for all students, whether they’re in their seats every day, or struggling just to make it to class.
Kareem Farah is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Modern Classrooms Project, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering educators to build classrooms that respond to every student’s needs.