Truancy is just a symptom


He was 15 years old but looked 12, a reedy, pale little guy with a mop of dark hair. When he stood in front of the class to tell his story, he was so nervous you could see his skinny legs trembling under his khakis. The drama class assignment was to tell a story about a minor life event that led to some new realization about the world — an assignment designed both to help the kids get over their shyness and to teach the meaning of the word “epiphany.”

The “minor” life event the boy chose to relay was the time his father, addicted to meth and hallucinating, threw himself out a fourth-story window and died. At the end of the story, my student, sobbing, told us that his epiphany was that he was alone in the world.

We hugged him, many kids told him they loved him, and he said he felt better for having told the story. But that didn’t fix his life. His mother had remarried a man who disliked him, so sometimes that year, he’d stay after school and do homework in my classroom. But there were also many days he didn’t come to school at all. He didn’t come no matter how much I begged him or called his house, no matter how often our counseling staff met with the student or his mother.


I’ve been thinking of that boy lately as state and national officials are vowing to get tough on truancy. It would be hard to find an educator who doesn’t agree that truancy is a problem. Kids who skip class tend to do poorly in school, and they often don’t graduate. That in turn harms their career prospects and earning ability.

But to hear California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris or U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk about the problem, solving it is simply a matter of holding schools and families accountable.

What do they think we’ve been trying to do?

Of course schools should keep careful track of attendance and try to intervene early when kids start missing school. I taught for five years at an excellent charter school in a very low-income community in South Los Angeles, and I’m here to tell you, it’s delusional to think that “accountability” — whatever that means, presumably a demand for written reports and the subsequent firing of those who do not turn them in — will solve the problem of the large number of children in this city whose families are in crisis.

At our school, attendance was a priority. We kept meticulous accounts, analyzed the data, held conferences, referred kids to counseling, called parents or guardians. We instituted a tough, no-excuses detention system and then, when that didn’t work very well, instituted a compassionate, conference-based system that also didn’t work well. No matter how hard we tried, there was always a hard-core group of kids who didn’t come to school a lot of the time. And, obviously, these kids often failed their classes.

None of us could solve the mystery of why they didn’t come to school. But I can say anecdotally that every kid I knew who was chronically truant came from a home in chaos. I had a student last year who was absent about half the time because his father had been shot and his mother, who had lost her job, cried every night because she didn’t know how she would pay the rent. My student would walk the streets day after day looking for a job, even though no one would hire him because he was only 15. His mother begged him to stay in school and graduate, assuring him she would figure something out. Our counselor referred the family to public services, but because my student’s mother was undocumented, she was afraid to seek them. And my student continued to be absent about half the time.

These days we brandish the word “accountability” like a magic wand, closing our eyes and dreaming that if we just demand the right outcomes, abracadabra! Never mind that, according to a UNICEF report this year, the United States has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.


We pretend that we can cut services and education funding to the bone — as has happened in California — without consequence. We somehow convince ourselves that despite a minimum wage so low no one can live on it, an economy that simultaneously depends on and criminalizes undocumented workers, and schools that pack 45 or 50 kids into a classroom while slashing counselors, after-school programs and summer school, we can simply demand accountability and get it. But our students aren’t likely to just trot back to school when their lives are falling apart.

Yes, kids need to go to school. But truancy is a symptom, not the core problem, and accountability alone can’t fix it.

What can? It won’t be easy, but we need to start with a real and painful conversation admitting the depth of income inequality in California, its effect on children and what it may actually take in terms of resources to close that gap.

We need, in effect, to have the epiphany that my student had all those years ago and come to understand that there are an unfathomable number of children in poverty whose families are in crisis and who are alone. Let’s stop dreaming of simple solutions and ask ourselves honestly: What’s it really going to take to reach out to those children?

Ellie Herman is taking a year away from the classroom to learn from teachers in schools across Los Angeles. She is blogging about it at