More personal responsibility, less COVID-blaming, needed in education

This blog was previously published in the Des Moines Register.

More personal accountability, less COVID-blaming, needed in education

Solving an education problem is never easy, but it’s helpful to at least identify what is not at fault.

A recent Des Moines Register article, “How DMPS is trying to get kids back into class after COVID” suggests that the pandemic is the cause of a high percentage of chronic absences in the district. It then likens Des Moines schools to schools nationwide, facing the same problem.  

Misery loves company because it reduces personal accountability.

It’s likely there are several schools suffering with attendance problems, for a number of reasons, throughout the country. But the knee-jerk response is to blame COVID.

The Iowa Department of Education tells a different story. Average daily attendance for Iowa schools was 94.7% for the 2018-2019 school year, which was pre-pandemic. Attendance fell to 92.8% for the 2020-2021 academic year. A total difference of 1.90%. Only slightly downward. And with a starting point of about 95%, there wasn’t much ceiling room.  

Certainly, COVID may have factored into the slight state-wide decline. But it doesn’t explain the huge drop experienced by Des Moines schools.

About one-third of the 327 schools listed had numbers that remained the same or actually increased in attendance percentage. Only two schools had a double-digit percentage drop in attendance—Des Moines at 10.60% and Davenport at 12.50%. Four schools saw a 5-7% decline: Ames, Burlington, Red Oak and Waterloo. Most of the remaining 200 schools saw attendance decline near the state average of about 2%.

What jumps out is that no other schools experienced the catastrophe that Des Moines and Davenport faced after that two-year period.

If the pandemic was the real culprit, double-digit decreases in attendance would be plaguing every school district in Iowa. COVID came for all of us, not just Des Moines and Davenport.

Stakeholders in this dilemma are teachers, families and school administrations.

Teachers are the difference makers in education. Placing a really great teacher in every classroom is one of the biggest determining factors in a student’s academic success. But it’s hard to see how the responsibility for student attendance should rest on their shoulders. We have to get them there, before they can take it from there.

Why aren’t families getting them there? There could be several reasons why some students are missing too much school. Perhaps the student has a chronic illness. Maybe, due to poverty, he or she also works to supplement a family income. It’s also possible that the student simply chooses not to go to school and that the parents are either indifferent to that decision or incapable of requiring school attendance.   

All of those situations can and do happen in the other 325 school districts that did not experience a 10-12% drop in attendance. Family problems are not unique to Des Moines and Davenport.

That leaves the administration.

Schools are hierarchies. It’s a top-down system of power and authority that must accomplish a lot. But its main role is to constantly and consistently set clear expectations of the student body. Expectations from ruling administrators and school boards can look quite differently from district to district. And lack of problem-solving ability, poor judgement, and weak leadership during these last couple of years may have done harm that is only now being quantified.

That’s not a COVID problem. It’s a people problem.

There are so many moving parts with education issues that it’s difficult to nail down a true diagnosis. But we can stop using the pandemic as a scapegoat.

We’ve had a toxic love affair with COVID-Blame, but it’s time to end it and start assuming personal responsibility again.