Finding Students Who are Falling Through the Cracks
There has been a significant focus over the past two years in the news about students who are “missing” due to the pandemic. However, the students aren’t actually missing — they’re just not showing up to class.
In partnership with seven state departments of education and regional support centers and individual districts in four other states, Graduation Alliance has been instrumental in assisting school districts locate, contact, and re-enroll students. We have learned why so many students have disengaged with their local school offerings from contacting more than 100,000 students referred to us through these partnerships.
The reasons why students stop showing up for school fall into three broad categories: academic performance issues, access to academic resources, and social-emotional barriers. Obviously, access to resources and social-emotional barriers can have an impact on the academic performance category, so it would be a mistake to think that students fall into only one of these categories.
With that in mind, we discovered there are five obstacles that really stand out in terms of student engagement, and if these can be overcome, there is an excellent chance students will re-engage and get back on track. Nobody is saying it will be easy or fast, but there is at least a roadmap we can follow.
The top five obstacles to school engagement are:
- Not having an adult actively engaged in their academic progress.
- Struggling to use technology for learning and creating content.
- Having sibling care responsibilities.
- Having work or other competing outside commitments.
- McKinney-Vento status.
Students from low-income, single parent homes have been disproportionately negatively affected by the pandemic. This is an equity issue — an opportunity gap. The opportunity gap has only widened because of the effect of the pandemic on the economy.
Many parents are not home because they are working long hours, so they may not be able to be as actively engaged in their children’s academic progress as they would like to be. This is a classic instance of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before people can attend to needs at the higher (or loftier) end of the spectrum. In other words, parents are going to make the obvious best choice for their families by providing the critical needs of food, shelter, and safety before other needs can be addressed.
The number of families who reported K-5 students struggling to use a computer for learning exemplifies the novel way pandemic learning intertwines academic resources and academic performance: Physical presence is no longer the barometer for participation. For the first time, in many cases, students are being asked to use technology to create rather than to consume.
Pre-literate children who barely have a grasp of the alphabet have been asked to use a keyboard to create content and do homework. Using technology for learning is particularly challenging for the early grades. There are big issues including frustration, pre-literacy, and discomfort with the technology, such as using a mouse or trackpad instead of a touchscreen. For students who are relying on older siblings and grandparents for tech support and guidance, these obstacles may be insurmountable.
In light of the economic impact from the pandemic, in many instances, older children are providing childcare (and supervision) to siblings. This is not a new situation. Zoe Kirsch wrote an April 2020 article called “When Siblings Become Teachers: It’s Not Just Parents Who Find Themselves Thrust Into the Demanding Role of At-Home Educators:”
Data on education-related sibling caregiving is scarce; it’s only within the past decade that researchers have started looking at the issue in its own right, and many studies have used small sample sizes. The most recently available data on the issue show that, as of 2005, there were around 1.4 million kids and teens tending to someone in their family — with about 11 percent of those young people in charge of a sibling.
In addition to the phenomenon of teens who are distracted from their own school work because of sibling care responsibilities, there are the teens who have been forced to drop out of school during the pandemic in order to find jobs and contribute financially to the household.
Again: This is not a new situation. There has long been a significant pocket of teens (according to data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, nearly a third of teenage dropouts) who leave school in order to work. Teen family responsibilities have been amplified by the pandemic. Families in lower economic brackets have not recovered economically from the pandemic, and it’s difficult to say when recovery will occur.
The irony is the economic forecast increases the likelihood that teens who have dropped out of school to work will not be able to leave their jobs and return to school any time soon. At a time when economic survival dictates immediate income, connecting their education to a better financial future may seem like a luxury these teenagers cannot afford. This is a resiliency issue requiring multiple supports in order for students to prioritize education while continuing to meet their family responsibilities. Addressing this catch-22 is one of the many challenges facing educators and policy makers.
We saw an increase from Spring 2020 to Fall 2020 in student/family affirmative responses to the question about their housing stability. Anecdotally, we believe there are two possible reasons for the change. First, it is possible the number of students who met the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness actually increased. Second, in Fall 2020, we began reading respondents the following definition of homelessness. Are you — because of economic hardship — currently:
- Sharing a home or apartment (e.g., living with family members or friends)
- Living in a motel, trailer park, car, or campground
- Staying at a shelter, or
- Staying at a place not typically intended for sleeping (e.g., city park, bus station)?
The methodology for this question changed as we recognized some of the outcomes of economic hardship caused by the pandemic and changes in employment. We read students and families this definition and asked them, “Does this apply to you?” with the intent to deliver this data to schools for appropriate follow up.
In the Spring, 1% of respondents answered affirmatively about being homeless. After the definition was read to students in the fall, the percentage jumped to an average of 7% of students grades K-5 and 5% among students in grades 6-12.
This finding further illuminates the magnitude of the opportunity gap, which is ever expanding during the pandemic. We do not have an educational profile for families who are enduring this particular hardship; however, the data we have about adult supervision and sibling-care responsibilities supports the economic challenges families are facing. Years of evidence (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Morison, 2006; Levin, et al., 2012) suggest people with less education than a college degree are more likely to face economic burdens.
The ramifications of McKinney-Vento eligibility for younger children are reflected in the discussion below about both technology (academic resources) and reading and math (academic performance) and have been exacerbated by the pandemic: Crowded housing conditions, food insecurity, lack of bandwidth and privacy to focus on school work, and anxiety caused by economic uncertainty all contribute to the “COVID slide” and an attack on student resiliency in immeasurable ways.
The implications of these findings underline the necessity of including social and emotional supports for students moving forward.
Finding missing students is the easy part of this equation: They haven’t actually gone anywhere. What is critical for these students who are missing in the margins, who are falling through the cracks, is making sure that they are not invisible even when they are showing up to the classroom. What is currently missing for many students in America, particularly low income students who may need additional resources to replace the traditional school support structures is a coaching/mentoring role. Schools need to consider their existing frameworks and resources and shift more of the burden from teachers to support staff who can provide individualized attention to students and help them address some of these very real life barriers — and then students can turn to the loftier hierarchy level of academic success.