Ever since education was made compulsory, schools in Japan and the United States have faced the problem of students who are absent for reasons other than illness or family emergencies. But it is only fairly recently that the issue has reached near-crisis proportions.

In Japan, 119,617 students in elementary and junior high schools were absent for 30 or more days in fiscal 2013. Although the number is down from the record 138,733 set in 2001, it is up 7,000 from the previous year.

In the U.S., almost 15 percent of students are chronically absent from school, meaning they miss at least one day in 10. But with the exception of just six states, only average daily attendance rates are measured.

The result is that schools can report an average of more than 90 percent daily attendance and still obscure the fact that 40 percent of their students are chronically missing. That’s the paradox given short shrift in the debate.

Further, each state defines truancy differently. In California, students who post three or more unexcused absences during the school year are truant. About 1 million elementary students fell into this category in the 2012-13 school year.

No matter how chronic absenteeism is defined, however, school districts in both Japan and the U.S. have a legal duty to intervene when students are not in class. Early intervention is crucial. That’s because once students fall behind, the likelihood of their eventually dropping out dramatically increases. To lessen that possibility, school counselors need to work with families to identify the cause of absences and, if necessary, put them in touch with community services.

Schools in the U.S. that have assigned mentors to work with individual students have added an average of nine days of attendance per school year. That’s a significant improvement that can serve as a model for Japan, where bullying led to the suicide of a middle-school boy in Otsu in 2011.

Nevertheless, some states continue to take a punitive approach. California once considered a bill that could have sent parents to jail for up to one year if their children from kindergarten to eighth grade missed too much school.

In 2010, the San Francisco Unified School District proposed forcing truants in high school to plead guilty to an infraction of the Education Code, pay a fine and surrender their drivers’ licenses, or complete truancy classes and perform community service.

This draconian policy never gained traction because it disproportionately penalized students from impoverished families, where older children are frequently given the job of watching over their younger siblings.

High school students pose an entirely different problem. They often are absent because they fail to see any connection between their interests and the courses they are required to take to graduate. When this happens, as it does all too frequently, they stop going to class.

Whatever the cause of chronic absenteeism, it’s a serious problem that warrants new solutions.

Left untreated, it threatens the future of the younger generation.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.