Whether the increasing rate of truancy in Japan and the United States qualifies as a genuine crisis is arguable. But it is not hyperbole to characterize truancy as a serious threat to both nations.

In Japan, foreign children are of immediate concern because of the dramatic growth in their numbers, and the disparate way they are tracked when they fail to attend school compared with their Japanese peers. Approximately 10 percent of the 100,000 school-age children of foreign nationality are truant. Unlike Japanese children, whose truancy is investigated by boards of education, these children fall through the cracks. Neither the central government nor the education ministry follow through, or do so only superficially. This dereliction is in violation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which took effect in 1990 guaranteeing the right of children to attend school.

Although weakness in Japanese-language skills and fear of bullying are the two likeliest causes, little is known about the role that poverty plays. It’s here that data from the U.S. can shed much needed light. According to education researchers at Johns Hopkins, children from impoverished backgrounds are by far most likely to be chronically absent from school, which is defined as missing at least 10 percent of class days a year. Under that definition, about one in 10 kindergarten and first-graders miss a month of school each year. In California, one million elementary school students were truant at last count.

Missing school at any time increases the risk of dropping out, which is linked to incarceration, decreased productivity, and lost tax revenues. But truancy is especially dangerous when it begins so early in the lives of children because the same pattern tends to be repeated in middle and high school. For Japan, the consequences are most severe, as a healthy economy is necessary to support its growing number of senior citizens.

To formulate an effective course of action, additional data about the socioeconomic backgrounds of non-Japanese students labeled as truant are indispensable. The data now available are a start, but they do not provide sufficient justification for a nationwide policy.

In the final analysis, however, reducing truancy in both Japan and the U.S. requires acknowledging that all who bear responsibility for getting children off to school on time every day ready to learn are held accountable. Failing to do so will only exacerbate the problem by detracting attention from the real causes. There’s already too much useless finger pointing.

First and foremost are parents. At a bare minimum, their job is to make sure that their children get enough sleep and a nourishing breakfast. Too many children lack these basic essentials. Prefectures and states, respectively, need to do their part by collecting school attendance data. Early warning signs require prompt intervention while there still is time to address the causes.

For example, a new app called Kinvolved lets teachers take each student’s attendance with a swipe of a finger. It then automatically sends a text message to parents if the student is absent or tardy. By promptly alerting them, the app has a strong deterrent effect because students can no longer intercept written communications sent home as in the past.

The irony surrounding truancy is that in so many other countries around the world schooling is denied to those who genuinely want an education. Yet in Japan and the U.S., where education is a right, truancy persists.

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

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