There is a logical connection between attendance levels and academic success, especially in K-12 education. If students do not show up to class, schools like Berkeley High School will have more difficulty in raising test scores and closing the achievement gap. But the high school is taking the wrong approach to combat truancy.
The high school aims to incentivize attendance by rewarding students who show up to class with items such as coupons, movie tickets and even free iPads. It comes as part of a year-and-a-half-long effort to boost attendance — one that appears to be working, as December attendance was about 1 percent higher in 2011 and 2012 than it was in 2010. While the school’s goal is admirable, its method in this instance is problematic.
First, the incentives seem based on a one-size-fits-all assumption: that students who neglect to attend class will change their behavior if they are given a prize for doing so. Yet that model is more likely to appeal to students who already show up, thereby rendering the program ineffective.
School officials should instead focus their attention on more targeted efforts. In reality, the reasons behind truancy are as diverse as the student body itself — different students have different needs. For example, prizes will do little for a student inhibited by his or her home environment or someone who feels his or her teachers have given up on him or her. Those concerned with raising the number of students attending class should direct more resources toward identifying the specific needs of their students and then develop solutions tailored to those needs.
The school district also has its own fiscal incentive to raise attendance levels. According to data from the high school, the 1.6 percent increase in average attendance during the 2011-12 school year brought in an additional $255,224 to the district. But if the high school and the district want to continue that trend in the best way possible, they should employ a more student-specific approach.