Attendance Rates, Ockham’s Razor, and That Really Good Football Coach
by Jay Harnack, Superintendant, Sublette County School District #1
June 24, 2012
(6/20/2012) - There's a lot of theory out there about what will increase student achievement rates. Millions (if not billions) are spent each year in the United States implementing programs designed to help students improve academically. In fact, I've spent the last 10 years of my career doing it. And during that time, there has been an intense focus on implementing programs that have been officially designated as "research-based". To be honest, I couldn't tell you who determines what is research-based and what isn't. For all I know there's a clandestine unit at the U.S. Department of Education using a supercomputer and a divining rod to make the official call. It's rare that schools get the actual research data. And even when we do, there's a mountain of research out there. So what's a district to do when it wants to find the reliable strategy? More often than not, it's time to call William.
William of Ockham was a Franciscan monk that lived in Surrey during the 14th century. William was a logician. He spent a lot of time thinking about things. And one of the things he thought about was simplicity. William is attributed with a principle of logic stating, "When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better." Expressed in many forms, this principle has become known as Ockham’s Razor (the razor being used to cut absurdities from an argument). The folks at the coffee shop call it using common sense.
So when the district began to investigate strategies to increase student achievement, we found ourselves evaluating a lot of competing theories. And, as William of Ockham would have suggested, we not only looked for strategies that had a basis in research, we also looked at strategies that were intrinsically simple. And in education, there is no simpler or more effective strategy for improving student achievement than improving student attendance. You have to be present to learn; and being present with consistency translates to learning with consistency.
So the district revised its attendance policy. It wasn't anything earth shattering or novel. It aligned the policy for unexcused absences with Wyoming State Statute. It expected students to be in attendance and gave our administrators the flexibility to deal with individual situations. And most importantly, it worked. District-wide every student attended an average of three additional days compared to last year. At the high school, that number was nearly seven additional days. That might not sound like much, but when you look at it in terms of instructional time, it's staggering. At the high school alone, there were over 11,000 additional hours of instruction. District wide there were over 17,300 additional hours of instruction.
So we had greater attendance and more instruction. So what? Significant improvement is what! The ACT scores for 11th grade students were the highest they've been in five years (and candidly that's all the records I have). And our MAP test scores show that our teachers are performing at high levels and our students are growing at high levels. So while the adherent statisticians among us might say we can't provide an unquestionable causal link, I believe common sense and William of Ockham would say there's some pretty strong evidence.
But as another one of my favorite philosophers once said, "The rules of navigation never navigated a ship and the rules of architecture never built a house." While the attendance policy may have been the impetus for the change, it's the partnership between the district and its parents that made it work. We all know the attendance battle starts at home and works best when there is mutual support from the school. So thank you to all of our parents and students that made personal sacrifices to attend those extra days. And thank you to our teachers and principals for working with our families to improve attendance. Your commitment is having a positive impact. One that we need to continue...together.
A really good football coach once said, "Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." And it's certainly what makes a school district and an attendance policy work. As a lifelong Bears fan you have no idea how hard it is for me to publicly quote anyone affiliated with the...well you know. But nothing could be more germane when it comes to schools and attendance. An individual commitment to a group effort. We're off to a great start. Thank you again, and let's hang another big attendance number on the scoreboard next year.
Click here for Mr. Harnack’s Superintendent’s blog: Superintendent’s Blog