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Understanding in-school truancy: it may not be the student--but the curriculum, teacher, and pedagogy that is perpetuating truancy.

Truancy is a key indication of how well a school is attracting, keeping, and serving students' education needs. When students turn their backs on the education provided to them, we should ask ourselves, "What's wrong with that education?" Is there something in our schools and classrooms that's driving away students?

Students abandon school every day--attitudinally in younger grades and physically in older grades. They don't leave because they can't cope intellectually but because they don't care to (Cooper, 1998). And it's getting worse. Recent truancy research tells us that students are more regularly attending schools but not going to class (Shute & Cooper, 2014). We call this in-school truancy. It may sound like an oxymoron but being in school--and not in class--may be more difficult for schools to see and fix. Yet it has the same effect on students who are tuning out of learning and the achievement process.

Truancy redefined

Interestingly, the origin of the word truant fits nicely with the description we give the youth who is truant. The word truant has its origins in the 12th-century Old French word "trougant," a beggar, vagabond, or rogue. The Welsh used the term to mean wretch or wretched. The Spanish word "truhan" means buffoon. Later in the mid-15th century, truant came to identify "one who wanders from an appointed place." However, with the astronomical incidences of truancy, one must wonder: Is the place from which these buffoons wander a good place? If schools were a good place for children, why would they wander away by the millions? Educators must move away from this stereotype.

In the past, truancy applied mainly to students who skipped entire days of school without being formally excused. Research shows that far more students arrive at school and then skip certain (or all) classes during the day. In-school truancy is more than double the level of school truancy (Shute, 2009). Thus, the limitations of traditional views of truancy really aren't applicable or useful today. When we include class-skipping students in truancy definitions and attendance data, we will greatly expand the breadth of the truancy discussion. More precisely, getting to the heart of the problem will help us devise workable solutions.

Redefining causes of truancy

The usual view is that truants are lost and troubled juveniles with psychological problems. After all, who else would purposely absent themselves from such an inherently good, life-expanding endeavor as education? This view has prevailed over the decades. Researchers place the causes for truancy into three generally accepted categories: home and family environment, student, and/or school. While we agree that many well-known sociological and environmental factors promote truancy, we also acknowledge and confront more disconcerting causes: curriculum and pedagogy.

Truancy is much too widespread to continue classifying it as the behavior of social and educational misfits. As Guare and Cooper state, the "evidence that truancy is so widespread--across the sexes, the age cohorts, the grade levels, and the ethnic groups --that deficit, social, and school theories cannot explain adequately the root causes of truancy" (2003, pp. 2-3). Research shows that 62% to 71% of students are truant at some point in their lives. If teachers and administrators accept the traditional notion that truants are juvenile delinquents, then they're claiming that over 60% of students are juvenile delinquents. We disagree; other factors must be contributing to the truancy phenomenon. Truancy is universal, spanning ethnicities, languages, and cultures. For example, studies show that 62% of white students, 71% of ethnic minority students, and 70% of English language learners are truant at some point in their lives. Of these 51%, 46%, and 42%, respectively, are truant only from class (Shute & Cooper, 2014). We must stop blaming juvenile delinquency for this lost learning and deleterious effect on our society. Educators understand the value of every class period and the tragic consequences of missing class.

In recent years, new assertions have been made that most truants aren't social deviants; rather, they're students who become truant as a rational decision. They're students who won't tolerate academic subjects that seem inadequate and teachers who seem poorly prepared, boring, or both. In other words, these rational decision makers are wandering from the appointed place--the school and the classroom--because in their perceptions these places aren't beneficial for them. Copious research indicates that much of the truancy problem is a result of poor, unengaging academic curricula, pedagogy, and other school and classroom problems (Chesney-Lind et al., 2004; Roderick et al., 1997; DeKalb, 1999; Shute, 2009). As Guare and Cooper (2003) explained:

   We reject the rather simplistic view that truancy is the
   result of personal deficits or characters of students ...
   Instead, what emerges from this analysis is yet another
   view, one that treats students as thinking, rational decision
   makers who assess their situation and decide,
   like other 'consumers' or 'clients,' to 'buy' their units
   of education (a day or a period at a time) or to reject
   school and play hooky (p. 15).

What truants say

If we listen to students when they tell us why they're truant, a different picture is painted. Many students cite a lack of challenging/interesting coursework and curriculum, boredom, loss of interest in school, and irrelevant courses as major factors for not attending (Williams, 2012). Students also reported that they're truant because they dislike their classes, that lessons seem to be of no use, and that they need to finish their homework (Shute, 2009). Simply put, students claim school is a dull, boring, nonengaging environment (Sousa, 2011).

Skipping school and class often results in a school environment where students perceive adults and teachers as uncaring, where students believe they have poor relationships with teachers, and they feel bullied and disrespected by staff (Attwood & Croll, 2006; Gonzales, Richards, & Seeley, 2002). Students say they skip class because they want to avoid particular teachers, as some teachers may insult them, or embarrass them, are rude or unfair (Shute, 2009). Of course, that any student would purposely cut class for any of the above reasons is appalling and unacceptable for teachers and principals.

Truants often claim they and their parents value education, but these same truants purposely absent themselves from the very educational experiences that they value in certain schools and classrooms (Shute, 2009). Whatever is pulling these truants away from school and class is strong enough to jeopardize their future opportunities and lives.

Research shows that truants are typically rational people. We conclude that the real problem is not usually with students but with schools--the message students are trying to tell us by being truant.

What to do

A number of viable options are available to fix the truancy problem, including simply redefining what truancy means and understanding it better. Most truant children are not those who cut entire days of school but rather students who choose to skip specific classes once they've arrived at school, almost with surgical precision. Thus, skipping class-in-school truancy--must be included in the truancy definition and data collection, which also means using class skipping in our truancy prevention efforts. This should bring us back to evaluating what's happening in classrooms and schools.

In addition, we must elevate the intellectual location of truancy as a subject for serious scholarly inquiry and action. Large numbers of students pick and choose which classes they want to attend. And so it stands to reason that if what happened in the classes were different, the children might think and behave differently. Evidence suggests that most students do not hate school. Most children, including most truants, like school. In other words the data suggest that although other variables are at work, truancy, if viewed as a barometer of successful education, connects mostly to curriculum and pedagogy.

Perhaps the most poignant solution is to include students in prevention efforts. Choice in education is imperative and essential to student learning. Many students are neither engaged in learning nor do they appear interested in becoming so in our current system. As Cooper explained, "Students are the schools' clients. When kids skip these services, it is time to ask: 'Why did you skip my class yesterday? Did you have a personal problem, or is my course boring?'" (1998, p. 3). Guare and Cooper suggest that teachers, school leaders, parents, and community should consult students, seeking to understand their points of view and valuing their perspectives. Alienation and disengagement from learning are all too common experiences for students (Guare & Cooper, 2003).

By improving the curriculum, pedagogy, presentations, and student involvement--as colleges often do to attract and retain student enrollment--we can make schools and classrooms better and more sensitive; thus they will discourage truancy and allow graduates to have better chances to succeed in life. We must believe that students are rational decision makers, capable of making positive contributions to their own overall educational process, curriculum included.

What to do now

#1. Bring teachers, principals, parents, and students together to discuss improving life in the classroom. By asking these key people for their opinions and desires for the education of all children, everyone will benefit. Teachers will hear the reality of how their classrooms are perceived and can discuss the problem with each other and their students.

#2. Focus on teachers for whom in-school truancy is a problem. Schools need to make their faculty meetings more educational and more focused on classrooms, teaching, and students. For example, if each bimonthly meeting of the school staff was devoted to teachers' demonstrating their best, most engaging lessons or putting their concerns before colleagues, then classrooms might be more fun, interesting, engaging, and effective--and class cutting would likely decline.

#3. Build ongoing databases that track increases and improvements in classroom and school attendance on a weekly or even daily basis. This way, problems can be fixed before the damage becomes irreparable. Hit the problem on the nose when it happens. Is the class too difficult, too boring, or too poorly delivered to bring students in for the lessons? Find out regularly; highlight and reward improvements.

#4. Include in-school truancy in teacher and school evaluations to stimulate and reward improvement in attendance. When attendance improves by class and teacher, schools should track the improvement, let teachers know, and reward them. Pay for improvements in student attendance, too.

#5. Celebrate the results. Reward students who show up regularly, enjoy their classes, learn, make good grades, and move on to high-quality continuing and higher education.

#6. Make schools exciting. Spending 183 or more days in school, all day, should be a fun and exciting experience for everyone. We all remember those moments as students, and even as teachers, when things worked. Kids really had fun and excelled, and the classroom was a happy, engaging place.


Research makes it clear that truancy is too massive a problem simply to be blamed mainly on juveniles and irresponsible parents. Truancy is a symptom of a much larger issue related to teaching and learning in our schools. Most truants are turning away from teaching and learning in the classrooms. Now is the time to approach the truancy problem from a different angle, one that views the majority of the truants as making a rational choice to attend school but to skip class. By doing this, we can focus our attention where the problem is: classroom curriculum and pedagogy.


Attwood, G. & Croll, P. (2006). Truancy in secondary school pupils: Prevalence, trajectories, and pupil perspectives. Research Papers in Education, 21 (4), 467-484.

Chesney-Lind, M., Pasko, L., Marker, N., Freeman, S., & Nakano, J. (2004). Arrest trends, gang involvement, and truancy in Hawaii: An interim report to the 22nd Hawaii state legislature. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Cooper, B.S. (1998, Spring). Skipping school for fun and profit. American Outlook.

DeKalb, J. (1999). Student truancy. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Gonzales, R., Richards, K., & Seeley, K. (2002). Youth out of school: Linking absence to delinquency. Denver, CO: Colorado Foundation for Families and Children.

Guare, R. & Cooper, B.S. (2003). Truancy revisited: Students as school consumers. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Roderick, M., Arney, M., Axelman, M., Dacosta, K., Steiger, C., Stone, E., Villarreal-Sosa, L. & Waxman, E. (1997). Habits hard to break: A new look at truancy in Chicago's public schools. Research brief. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration.

Shute, J.W. (2009). Expanding the truancy debate: Truancy, ethnic minorities, and English language learners. In M. Conolly & D. O'Keeffe (Eds.), Don't fence me in: Essays on the rational truant (pp. 115-138). Buckingham, England: University of Buckingham Press.

Shute, J.W. & Cooper, B.S. (2014). Fixing truancy now: Inviting students back to class. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sousa, D.A. (2011). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Williams, L.L. (2012). Student absenteeism and truancy: Technologies and interventions to reduce and prevent chronic problems among school-age children. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

JONATHAN W. SHUTE ( is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Brigham Young UniversityHawaii. He is coauthor of Fixing Truancy Now: Inviting Students Back to Class (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Bruce s. CooPER ( is a retired professor of education leadership at Fordham University, New York, N.Y.


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Author:Shute, Jonathan W.; Cooper, Bruce S.
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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