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A New Lost Generation: Disengaged, Aimless, and Adrift

Thomas B. Fordham Institute

May 2, 2024

More than a quarter of America’s school-aged children were absent from school 10 percent or more of the time last year. There’s no shortage of explanations on offer for this surge in “chronic absenteeism,” mostly blaming the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath: lockdowns; lowered expectation; health and hardship; bullying and school safety issues. Remote learning and “Zoom school” made attendance optional, which is a hard habit to break.

A letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to chief state school officers a few weeks ago cited “multiple, often interconnected factors” for chronic absenteeism. High school students, he wrote, might face “competing demands such as staying home to be caregivers to younger siblings or a sick family member or working outside the home to support themselves or their families.” While that may be true for some number of students, I fear there’s a larger and even more troubling trend at work. A New York Times report, circling but not quite landing, came closer than Cardona when it suggested that “something fundamental has shifted in American childhood and the culture of school in ways that may be long lasting.” 

Since the start of the school year, I’ve been visiting schools and talking to educators about faltering school attendance and learning loss associated with the pandemic, which vaporized twenty years of achievement gains at a stroke. I’m left with a nagging sense that we’re misreading chronic absenteeism almost entirely. It fits a larger pattern of young people absenting themselves not just from school, but from life.

Alarm bells ring when young people leave the rails, make poor decisions, and live recklessly, driven by unchecked appetites for pleasure, wealth, or status. But as my AEI colleague Yuval Levin observed in a disquieting essay for The Dispatch a few years ago, disorderly lives now seem “less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated.” Worse, this lassitude is masked by data that can make it appear things are actually improving. Teen pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births might be down, for example, but that’s because marriage and birth rates are declining overall. Fewer teenagers die in car accidents because fewer of them are getting drivers licenses. “There is less social disorder,” Levin concluded, “because there is less social life. We are doing less of everything together.”

The thing young people “do together” is go to school. At least they used to. The phrase Levin coined, “disordered passivity,” or simply a “failure to launch,” fits more comprehensively the rise in chronic absenteeism, which was a problem even before Covid; the pandemic merely legitimized it. Nearly one in six U.S. students missed fifteen or more days in 2018–19, the last full school year before the pandemic. Seen through this lens, school is just one more activity from which young people are becoming estranged, one more opportunity to stay on the sidelines, but the easiest to quantify: we take attendance.

In the past, even bored or indifferent students might have dragged themselves to school to escape their parents, to avoid the drudgery of being housebound, or to socialize. But as David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a former New York State education commissioner, points out, smartphones and social media have made leaving the house unnecessary. Worse, they feed this poisonous passivity. “You think you are enjoying the experience, but it’s cementing you into a cognitive and emotional coma,” he told me. “Others are living ‘for you’ in ways you know you never will, so why try to take any baby steps? Just keep scrolling.”

Schools seem increasingly inclined to yield to the forces of enervation rather than resist them. A survey conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences found that 72 percent of public schools have higher teacher absenteeism rates since the pandemic. At least 900 school districts have now adopted four-day weeks, as if to normalize declining attendance of students and staff alike. “We gave a lot of grace” during the pandemic, one middle school teacher and administrator told me. Students didn’t just get passing marks, they got good grades for minimal effort. Now there’s a lack of perseverance. “When things get hard, kids tend to just shut down. They don’t have the problem-solving skills or the will to go through something hard because, during Covid, not all of them really had to,” she said. Parent behavior has also changed. “It’s way more likely now for parents to say, ‘My kids are having a hard time, so I’m letting them stay home for a little while,’” she added.

The passivity and enervation are evident and even more dispiriting when they afflict individuals and institutions—specifically schools—nominally charged with reversing it. Arthur Kirk, who founded and runs a community recreation center in West Baltimore, describes visiting a local principal last fall with a list of kids who routinely come to his center but not to school. “Oh, they come to school,” he was told. “They just don’t come like they should.” The response infuriated him. “It’s November!” he sputtered. “Why aren’t they following up? Is anyone going to put a foot in those parents’ ass? You feel what I’m saying? It’s that bad.”

On another recent trip to Baltimore, I spent an evening with a staffer from Concentric Education, which has contracted with Baltimore City Schools to visit the homes of chronically absent students, not to threaten or cajole, but to listen, connect with parents, and offer to help them break down whatever barriers are keeping their kids from attending school regularly. At one home, the mother of a ten-year-old girl first cited transportation problems for her daughter’s absences. Then she explained her child would always miss at least three days a month because of her daughter’s uncomfortable menstrual cycle. Next, she cited bullying. The longer we stood on the porch, the longer the list grew. I never laid eyes on the child, but it was hard not to think her school career was already drawing to a close in fifth grade. Her mother attached no discernible urgency to her daughter attending.

The conventional wisdom is that Covid broke school and the habits associated with it. Attendance is now optional, a “new normal.” A young man who graduated from high school in upstate New York last June described how the pandemic “delegitimized” school even among the academically inclined like him and his friends. “What’s the point in putting more effort into it when I’m just gonna pass all my tests anyway, and I can get out of online class by telling the teacher my computer glitched out?” he asked. “That attitude definitely shifted over to post-Covid learning, as well.”

There’s a vexing, blind-men-and-the-elephant feeling to all this. School district officials and education policymakers will tell you the post-pandemic lesson is that schools need to adapt and be more flexible, appealing, and relevant to students’ lives and needs. Counselors, mental health professionals, and even teachers talk about the need to make “social and emotional learning” co-equal to academics. Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist, worries about “the radical transformation of childhood into a phone-based existence.” But it’s none of those things, it’s all of them plus disorderly homes, inattentive parents, directionless lives, and moral exhaustion.

It’s a bromide now among teachers, administrators, and education policymakers to say chronic absenteeism is a canary in a coal mine. The implication is that schools as we have known and run them for generations need to change. I pray that’s so because the other possibility is nearly overwhelming to consider: that the canary is a large and growing cadre of disengaged and disaffected young people, and the coal mine is much, much bigger than just school.