Truancy in the United States: A Brief Overview (1996), by Sean Gabb

Truancy in the United States: A Brief Overview
by Sean Gabb

Republished from Chapter 12 of
Dennis O’Keeffe and Pat Stoll (eds)
Issues in School Attendance and Truancy,
Pitman Press, London, 1995, ISBN 0 273 61686 2
(republished with permission)


In looking at the present state of American research into truancy, it seems appropriate to turn Marx on his head: So far, educationalists have only tried to change the world in various ways – the point is to understand it.

During the past 15 years or so, much research has been done. Looking only to the journals, the literature is impressively bulky. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that the great majority of truancy research – and therefore most truancy policy – has been conducted on the basis of two rival approaches, both of which are misconceived.

Empiricism – One

First, there is what for want of a better name will be called the “empirical approach”. Now, this is not empiricism in the philosophical sense, which involves the framing of hypotheses and their testing by carefully structured research. It is, much rather, empiricism in the medical sense. It refers to the efforts of physicians in the early modern period to shake off the authority of the ancients. Galen, for example, had reasoned from the supposed nature of heat to the proper treatment of smallpox. Not surprisingly, many patients treated according to this method failed to recover. Reacting against it, physicians from the early 16th century tended to look for specific treatments that worked, and only later, if at all, asked why they worked.

For medical science, this kind of empiricism was a useful clearing of the ground, from which real progress could begin. But that is all it was. It has no place in the social sciences, where there are typically vast masses of data to be comprehended, and where the opportunities for tightly controlled experiment are effectively zero.

And yet, this is the basic approach of many truancy researchers. They do not ask the three questions that in Great Britain are increasingly seen as crucial to an understanding of the subject: How many school students play truant? What kind of students play truant? Why do they play truant? (See Dennis J. O’Keeffe, 1981, 1986, 1994; Patricia Stoll, 1989; Stoll and O’Keeffe, 1989) In fact, they do not seem very concerned to understand the subject at all. The aim of the truancy empiricists is to get truanting students back into school – never mind why they are absent in the first place, and sometimes never mind by what means they are got back into school.

Therefore the “Tulsa initiative”, described by Kara Wilson (1993). Tulsa County in Oklahoma contains 16 school districts. Some while ago, vexed by high truancy rates, the authorities there decided to start enforcing the State law to compel attendance at school. The most persistent truants and their legal guardians were identified, and a series of prosecutions was started.

Paul Eastwold (1989) describes similar initiatives across the country as a whole. One school district is so vigorous in its enforcement of the compulsory attendance statutes that it threatens the parents of persistent truants with fines and imprisonment.

Even where the extreme sanction of the criminal justice system is not invoked, there has been a general trend in the United States towards a tightening of school discipline for dealing with truancy. This usually involves the imposition of academic penalties. At Aurora High School in Colorado, for example, persistent truants are suspended from school, and occasional truants are required to catch up on the class work they have missed (Stine, 1990). In other places, truants can be punished by grade reduction and exclusion from higher grades, or even from final examinations.

It would be strange if in a country so generally litigious as the United States these strong methods had not been challenged in the courts. In fact, they have, though so far only at the State level. Clifford P. Hooker (1985) reviews 12 recent law cases testing the legality of academic penalties. He finds their use to be “widespread and increasing”. He also finds that the courts are reluctant to intervene except where due process has been obviously breached by the authorities. School rules to impose academic penalties have most chance of being upheld in court if they meet these criteria:

1. The rules should be explicitly stated and should be made known well in advance to students;

2. Students should not be barred from sitting final examinations simply on account of persistent truancy;

3. Academic penalties should be confined to those offences that would also merit suspension from school;

4. Such school rules should not be enforced in a manner that is obviously unfair or arbitrary.

Nevertheless, despite their increasing popularity, academic penalties should not be seen as the preferred option of the authorities. It seems, after all, a strange response to children who are damaging their educations by staying away from school, to punish them with further damage to their educations – often by excluding them from school. And so, many other initiatives rely less on negative than on positive inducements to high and regular attendance.

Robert K. Callaghan (1986) describes an absentee attendance programme at a rural, lower middle class, mostly white elementary school. Its 722 students had a history of high truancy, according to their teachers and the other relevant authorities. A group of 14 chronic truants was selected. These students were told that they were expected to attend school every day, and that their attendance would be closely monitored. Failure to attend would not be punished, but consistently high attendance would be rewarded. There was to be a “special time awards day” every Friday, when rewards would include ice cream parties, pizzas, picnics, swimming trips to the local lake, and so forth.

Other districts combine both approaches, punishing truancy and rewarding high attendance (Zweig et al, 1979; Duckworth, 1988; Dowdle, 1990). Still other districts take a largely technological approach. For an early but extreme instance of this, Consider “Hi. Your Kid Cut Class Today. At the Tone,…” (1983):

And you thought you’d tried every trick in the book to cut student absenteeism. You haven’t. Now that computers have become an accepted feature in many schools’ administrative offices, you might want to check out a new, computerized telephone system that six Chicago schools are using. Each of the schools has installed a machine that telephones parents to alert them that their child was absent from school that day. The principal simply records a message on the machine, and the computer automatically dials parents at a specified hour, usually in the evening. The message goes something like this: “Good evening. I’m Tom Jones, principal of Central High School. I am calling to let you know that your child was absent from school today. Please call the attendance officer at 555-1212 tomorrow between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to explain the absence.” The machine can make 50 calls per hour. If no one answers the telephone at a student’s home, the machine will try twice more. The next morning, a printout allows the attendance officer to see which parents received – and which ones missed – the calls.

Each machine costs approximately $7,800, but the Chicago School Board expected the machines to pay for themselves within 15 months. The article continues:

That’s because when school attendance improves – it’s expected to go up approximately 3 percent – schools will earn more state aid. After conducting a tryout last fall in two schools with especially high absenteeism, attendance increased from 78.8 percent to 85.6 percent.

Similar hopes were expressed by Kathy D. Tuck and Frieda N. Shimbuli (1988) – see also Richard DuFour (1983) and Thomas Jacobson (1985). Indeed, similar hopes and claims have been expressed in all the studies cited above. Put in place the right combination of sticks and carrots, add where possible the fruits of modern technology – and attendance ought surely to rise. In the Aurora study, for example (Stine, 1990), the use of academic penalties is said to have reduced truancies to less than 1¼ per cent. Similarly, the “Tulsa initiative” is said to have scared “hundreds of students” back to school (Wilson, 1993). Largely because they are said to work, the courts have tended to view academic penalties in a sympathetic light (Hooker, 1985).

Yet if these methods have been as successful as if often claimed, it is worth asking why there remains so much concern in the literature about truancy in American schools. The Chicago School Board is supposed to have shown how to reduce truancy by nearly seven percentage points in 1983. But there is no evidence to suggest that truancy in Chicago is even one percentage point lower today than it was 11 years ago. Nor do the various stick and carrot experiments seem to have produced a general improvement.

It is unlikely, bearing in mind the strength of concern about truancy, and the accessibility of the literature, that any of the cures projected since the early 1980s have been overlooked. It seems far more likely that the projectors of these cures have been mistaken. This is indicated by the evidence of “The 15-Day Attendance Policy” (1990) at Mount Diablo in California. An academic penalties scheme was set up across the district in 1985- 86, and this was monitored during the next four years. In some schools, attendance improved: in others, it actually worsened. During the whole four year period, the district experienced a minimal improvement in average attendance rates; and these could be explained by other intervening causes.

The nature of the evidence for their cures discussed above will be left for the moment to one side. But supposing that there have been improvements, it is worth recalling that extraordinary efforts will often produce extraordinary results. If school students know that they are being closely watched, and that expensive systems of punishments and reward have been put in place above them, it is natural that their attendance levels will improve. But as soon as the fact, or novelty, of surveillance diminishes, so too will its effects.

It is, then, possible that the cures discussed above have had at least some of the beneficial results claimed for them, but that they do not add up to a solution to the problem of truancy. To continue the medical simile, the empirical approach may have had the same kind of local effect on truancy as aspirin has on a fever: and that for a permanent, effective cure, we must either hope for a spontaneous change in the attendant circumstances, or seek an understanding of the problem before trying to solve it.

Curing the Child

This brings us to the second of the two approaches. This will be termed the “social-engineering approach”. Researchers here have the advantage of trying to understand why students play truant. That is, they ask the third of the three questions mentioned above. Their answer is that truancy is very often a symptom of other problems in the students. They stay away from school because their social backgrounds have left them ill- equipped to handle the demands placed on them at school – or even to appreciate the value of an education. Income, social class, ethnic origin, peer pressure, substances consumed, stability of family – these are all held to have a causal effect on truancy. Change or alleviate these, the argument goes, and there will be corresponding changes in the truancy rates. (See on these points R.C. Howard et al, 1986; Winston J. Hagborg, 1989; Martin Dreilinger, 1992)

To this end, in some districts, enforcement of the compulsory attendance laws has changed out of recognition. Del Stover (1991) gives an impressionistic account of truancy policing in Baltimore and Los Angeles. Here, truancy officers have tended to become indistinguishable from social workers, as they try to resolve the problems of broken homes and drug abuse and so forth that are believed to keep students away from school.

In Chicago, a Truants’ Alternative and Optional Education Program has been developed to provide these services on a formal basis (Brownlee et al, 1989). Its founding aims were to provide “preventive, interventive, and remedial services to keep students from becoming chronic truants”. Counselling of truants and the provision of alternative – and perhaps more personally-suited – schemes of education, feature heavily in the programme.

For some researchers, indeed, truants are not merely unfortunate, or “disadvantaged”, but in some degree victims of an illness amenable to treatment. Amy Biebold and Lisa Herlache (1991) believe in the usefulness of having school psychologists provide “interventions for truancy”. These are to replace the “predominantly punitive” and allegedly ineffectual methods of dealing with truancy. They discuss “risk factors associated with truancy” just as if it were a physical disease in need of epidemiological investigation. Writing somewhat earlier, Meryl E. Englander (1986) discusses the possibilities of “rehabilitating” individual truants with a “diagnostic-treatment paradigm” – see also James H. LaGoy (1987).

In this respect, the American research shows broad similarities to the majority of recent British research, which has also tended to look to the backgrounds of school students for an explanation of their playing truant – eg, Tyerman (1968), Hersov and Berg (1980), Reid (1986), and many others. In both cases, the starting assumption is of a deficiency in the student, which the authorities can investigate and in principle remedy.

However, as in Great Britain, and as with “empiricism”, this approach does not appear to have succeeded. Geraldine D. Brownlee et al (1989) frankly confess that the Truants’ Alternative and Optional Educational Program has not been a success. The findings of their study “indicate that the proposed objectives have not been met”. This is partly ascribed to a funding reduction, but cannot be dismissed. It seems that the educational psychologist has been no more effective than the lawyer and the policeman in compelling attendance at school where there is no desire to attend.

Empiricism – Two

As said, the social engineers have at least in principle an advantage over the empiricists thus far described, so far as they ask why some school students play truant. If their approach also fails to deliver solid results, it is perhaps because they do not ask the two earlier questions mentioned above. As with Tyerman et al in Great Britain, they have answered their one question by reasoning from three untested assumptions.

First, they have assumed that truancy rates can be accurately measured by counting the number of students not present at morning roll call (“Hi. Your Kid Cut Class Today. At the Tone,…”, 1983; Callaghan, 1986; Coleman, 1986; Tuck and Shimbuli, 1988; Stine, 1990).

Second, they have assumed that at least the majority of truanting students have the same “problems of adjustment” as those who come to the attention of the courts and educational psychologists.

Third, they have assumed that what “problems of adjustment” do exist proceed more from the unhappy backgrounds of the students than from any deficiencies on the part of the schools.

Each of these assumptions has been called seriously in question by the most recent British research (O’Keeffe, 1981, 1986, 1994; Stoll, 1989; Stoll and O’Keeffe, 1989). In Great Britain, truancy has been divided under two headings – “blanket”, meaning unauthorised absences from school ; and “post registration”, meaning unauthorised absences from certain lessens or groups of lessons. The first sort is easily measured, since students are marked absent in a document which exists solely to detect absence. The second sort is far harder to measure, since students will normally have been marked officially present. The only reliable means of measurement are to go into the schools, and ask the students to fill in detailed questionnaires about their attendance habits and their reasons for non-attendance.

The consistent evidence of these questionnaires is that there is far more post registration than blanket truancy; that both kinds of truancy are greatest in the last years of compulsory schooling; and that the great majority of post registration truants do not have any of the “problems of adjustment” that those truants who have so far featured most in the literature are said to have. According to Dennis J. O’Keeffe (passim), the majority of truanting students – of both kinds – go absent because they do not like certain lessons. If this is the case, the most obvious road to improvement lies not in counselling or rehabilitation – still less in punishment and reward – but in a reassessment of school curriculum.

There is some recognition of all this in the American literature. See, for example, the Association of California School Administrators (1983):

Truancy sweeps, a cooperative effort of the high school district, Santa Maria Police Department, and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, gave us a valuable insight. The sweeps, unannounced to the public but coordinated by high school assistant principals and law enforcement agencies, were part of a concentrated effort to improve attendance. To our surprise, we found that the students who were picked up on these sweeps were not habitual trouble-makers or truants!

In the same year, David Brown (1983) expressed doubt regarding the role of individual or social pathologies as an explanation for truancy. He suggests looking instead at the contribution of the schools. Again, Josie Foehrenbach (1988) doubts if any scheme of truancy reduction can work that does also improve the ability of schools to educate.

Then, most notably, there is the work of Kenneth Duckworth and John deJung (1986). In many respects, this echoes, and even predates, the work of Dennis O’Keeffe and Pat Stoll (passim). Six high schools in the north western States were studied during 1984 and 1985, to determine the variation of students’ reports of the frequency with which they played both kinds of truancy – here called “skipping school” and “cutting class”. As in the British studies, data were collected directly from the students via questionnaires. Again, as in the British studies, truancy was at its greatest in the higher grades; and the main reason given for selective cutting was dislike of a particular class, or failure to have completed homework. There are other consistencies of finding between the studies that are most interesting.


Bearing in mind the scarcity of other truly empirical research into truancy in the United States, the Duckworth and deJong study is remarkable. Nevertheless, it lacks the large base of the British studies, and must be regarded as evidence of what could be achieved were the resources made available.


Truancy Sweeps. Target Area: Discipline, published by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) Task Force on Public Confidence, 1983.

The 15-Day Attendance Policy: Final Evaluation, published by the Mount Diablo Unified School District, Concord, California, 1990.

Brown, D., “Truants, Families and Schools: A Critique of the Literature on Truancy”, Educational Review, vol. 35, no. 3 (November 1983).

Brownlee, G.D., et al, “An Evaluation of Alternative Programs for High School Truants”, a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, March 1989.

Coleman, James M., Recommendations and Concerns Pertaining to Strategies for Improving Student Attendance and Reducing the Dropout Rate , Cleveland Public Schools, Ohio, 1986.

Callaghan, R.K., The Development and Implementation of an Absentee Improvement Program, M.S. Practicum, Nova University, 1986.

Diebolt, A. and Herlache, L., “The School Psychologist as a Consultant in Truancy Prevention”, a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of School Psychologists, Dallas, March 1991.

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DuFour, R. “Crackdown on Attendance – The Word is Out”, NASSP Bulletin, vol. 67, no. 464 (September 1983).

Eastwold, P., “Attendance is Important: Combating Truancy in the Secondary School”, NASSP Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 516 (April 1989).

Englander, M.E., “Truancy/Self-Esteem”, a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 1986.

Foehrenbach, J., Preparing for Learnfare: Setting the Conditions for a Questionable Experiment, Center for Law and Social Policy, Washington DC, 1988.

Hagborg, W.J., “A Study of Persistent Absenteeism and Severely Emotionally Disturbed Adolescents”, Behavioral Disorders, vol. 15, no. 1 (November 1989).

Hersov, L. and Berg, I. (ed.s), Out of School, John Wiley, Chichester, 1980.

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Hooker, C.P., “Academic Penalties for Student Misconduct”, in Jones, T.N. and Semler, D.P. (eds), School Law Update, National Organization on Legal Problems of Education, Kansas, 1985.

Howard, R.C. et al, “Factors Associated with Juvenile Detention Truancy”, Adolescence, vol. 21, no. 82 (Summer 1983).

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O’Keeffe, D.J., “Labour in Vain: Industry, Truancy and the School Curriculum”, in Flew, A. (ed.), The Pied Pipers of Education , Social Affairs Unit, London, 1981.

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O’Keeffe, D.J., Truancy in English Secondary School , HMSO, London, 1994.

Reid, K., “Truancy and School Absenteeism: The State of the Art”, Maladjustment and Therapeutic Education, Volume 4, part 3 (1986).

Rood, R.E., “Advice for Administrators: Writing the Attendance Policy”, NASSP Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 516 (April 1989).

Stine, M.D., “Do Your Students a Favor and Get Tough on Truants”, Executive Educator, vol. 12, no. 3 (March 1990).

Stoll, P.A., Post-Registration Truancy: A Study, Thesis submitted to the Polytechnic of North London, June 1989.

Stoll, P.A. and O’Keeffe, D.J., Officially Present: An Investigation into Post-Registration Truancy in Nine Maintained Secondary Schools, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 1989.

Stover, D., “Today’s ‘Hooky Cops’ are out to Save Troubled Parents”, Executive Educator, vol. 13, no. 7, (July 1991).

Tuck, K.D. and Shimbuli, F.N., An Evaluation of the Truancy Prevention Plan, District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington DC, 1988.

Tyerman, M. (ed.), Truancy, University of London Press, London, 1968.

Wilson, K.G., “Tough on Truants”, American School Board Journal, vol. 180, no. 4 (April 1993).

Zweig, John T. et al, “The Contingent use of Trading Stamps in Reducing Truancy: A Case Report”, Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 47, no. 3 (Spring 1979).

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