A recent Star Tribune editorial (“School reform starts with kids showing up,” Sept. 20) touched all the right bases. But it should have lingered more than it did on a giant one. Hint: As you read the following, think about how much responsibility students themselves should shoulder when it comes to their education.

One of the best answers I’ve ever gotten in an interview — “best” in the sense that it was exceptionally honest and had to be painful — came 38 years ago from a professor who had long advocated for open admissions in the City University of New York system. A self-described socialist, he had come to recognize that the policy he had passionately favored just wasn’t working and that “our idealization of human behavior proved to be unrealistic.” Why wasn’t it working?

For one thing, he recalled how arguments frequently played out in the 1960s and ’70s:

“ ‘The trouble with you professors,’ he recalled from the critics’ rhetoric, ‘is that you refuse to retool yourselves to conform to the needs of these new students.’ ” His answer, he said, always was: “ ‘I don’t know how to retool myself to meet the needs of students who aren’t in my classroom, whom I never see. ... What changes do I make that will influence students who are not in my classroom?’ ”

I remembered this lament earlier this month when a Washington Post writer, Joe Heim, reported on a new analysis of data collected by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year. The study, in Heim’s words, “shows that more than 6.5 million students, or about 13 percent in grades K-12, missed 15 or more days of school.” It was 12 percent, or 106,475 students, in Minnesota. Not tiny numbers. And missing 15 or more days of school, for whatever reason, is the report’s working definition of chronic absenteeism.

While the data were collected by the Department of Education, the published study — Preventing Missed Opportunity: Take Collective Action to Confront Chronic Absence — was a collaboration between two groups: Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. In an accompanying video, the executive director of Attendance Works says absenteeism in many parts of the country is a vital matter “because chronic absence is really a proven early indicator of academic risk starting as early as preschool and kindergarten.” And that “by middle school it is a surefire predictor of kids being on the path to drop out.”

She is right, of course. The report itself is also on-target when it argues: “Chronic absenteeism follows poverty wherever it is found in significant concentration. This includes both big cities, which have majority minority populations, and small towns and rural areas that are largely white.”

More specifically, the report cites “multiple factors which make it harder to attend school regularly.” Things such as “substandard housing, exposure to industrial and automotive pollutants — both of which drive higher rates of asthma — limited health and dental care, food insecurity, evictions and greater exposure to violence.”

All this is inarguable. Preventing Missed Opportunity is a valuable study. Still, something far from trivial is missing in its 36 pages. There isn’t a single reference — and only an indirect one in the Star Tribune editorial — to the obligation that students themselves have to get up in the morning and go to school. There is no sense in the report and little in the editorial that young people possess personal agency of any kind. These omissions neither respect nor serve students well.

My first inkling of this failure was a Star Tribune sub-headline on Heim’s article that read: “Minorities are among the students most affected.” Affected? Yes, of course, by all the bad results itemized above. But is considering this problem exclusively one where students are controlled by external forces a sound way of looking at it? Shouldn’t recognition of free will and its inescapable importance fit in someplace? Yes it should and yes it must.

Yet it’s precisely this kind of absence that routinely undermines the school reform movement. Much of what has been devised fails to adequately acknowledge that if kids are not willing to cooperate — or even show up — chances are overwhelming that grand new plans will fall short.

Young people are not manipulable widgets. The fact that so much written and pursued in the name of academic improvement assumes that they are is a big reason we remain educationally stuck.


Mitch Pearlstein is founder of Center of the American Experiment.