Normer Adams: Engaged to Learn

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More than 40% of Georgia’s students are absent from school each year for six or more days; 8.7% are absent more than 15 days.  Foster children do appreciably better than students in the general population do.  Only about 30% of all foster children miss six or more days from school.

Students cannot learn unless they are in class.  They have to be present and they have to be engaged.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, speaks to this problem with American education and culture.  He proposes that Asians do better than Americans do academically, not because of some innate intelligence, but purely because they go to school more.  American children spend 180 days in school versus the 280 days that Asian students spend.  He says, “For its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem; it has a summer-vacation problem.” Does Georgia want to close the gap between rich and poor students? If so, get rid of summer vacation in its poorest school districts.

The same postulate can be made with chronic absences.  A child who is absent from school cannot learn.  Absences reflect other fundamental problems faced by the student: the quality of the school, the stability of the family, the lack of transportation, the lack of health care, the unavailability of childcare and a parent who may be working long hours, for low pay and little flexibility.  Absences speak to whether or not we are meeting the needs of a child and supporting the family.

Gladwell was not off the mark with his assessment.  Research shows that absences matter because they adversely affect academic success in the future.  There is a direct correlation between the number of days absent and performance in math and reading in the later grades.   Absence is linked with juvenile crime.  One Colorado study found that 90% of detained juveniles had a history of school absences; 80% of those who were high school dropouts were excessively absent.

Excessive absence can be addressed.  It takes a coordinated response by the community and public agencies that meet children and family needs.  Case management is sometimes needed and is effective is assisting families with the educational tasks of their children.  This attention does pay rich dividends for the child and the community.


Normer Adams is Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children and a writer, speaker and consultant on family and social issues such as advocacy, lobbying, and child welfare policy. Learn more at

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