Recently, states submitted their implementation plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). A new requirement of the law mandated states select a fifth indicator to measure school quality or student success. Some states, including Tennessee, elected to focus on the “school quality” indicator, which offers metrics that take into account the quality of the schooling environment for student growth and development. This additional measure allows states to monitor key student outcomes that are integrally related to the quality of schools, like chronic absenteeism.

What’s at stake for states, like Tennessee, which have opted to add this metric to their assessment of school quality? Might it be the game-changer needed to increase underserved students’ access to opportunities to learn?

Like many other states, Tennessee has high rates of student absenteeism. Chronically missing school is linked to multiple factors including race, social class and ability. During the 2014–15 school year, 14.8 percent of Tennessee’s close to a million students were chronically absent. Of these, 16.3 percent were black and 19.2 percent were economically disadvantaged. Among Tennessee third graders, over two-thirds of chronically absent students were classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. Similar patterns exist for students identified as having a disability. Schools and school districts that serve concentrated populations of black, disadvantaged and disabled students are much more likely to be impacted by the problem of chronic absenteeism.

Tennessee Department of Education

The divides between race, social class and schooling are deep in Tennessee. Take for example, Memphis, Tennessee’s second-largest city. In 2010 the median family income in Memphis was $32,000 as opposed to $92,000 for a surrounding suburb.

The decision to link school quality to rates of chronic absenteeism recognizes that everyday school practices matter in students’ lives. When students do not attend school, it is often for reasons connected to how they experience school. School quality can mean many different things, but in the context of students, the quality of a school rests on its ability to provide an optimal space for learning.

Is school a safe place physically, emotionally, psychologically for all students? Is it a place where all students are recognized as capable learners and held to high learning expectations? Do all students have the opportunity to learn about their culture in the classroom curriculum? Do they see people who look like them in a variety of roles across the school community? Are students allowed and empowered to be their most authentic, creative selves?

To tackle the challenge of school quality and chronic absenteeism requires looking deeply at how schools service its most underserved students. What can Tennessee schools and school districts do to address these concerns? Below, I offer three suggestions:

First, if the goal of K-12 public schooling is academic success, it is incumbent that schools provide equitable and optimal opportunities to learn. These opportunities should not depend on where a student lives, how much money her or his family has, or access to out-of-school resources meant to enhance learning in the classroom.

A quality learning environment would include having caring, knowledgeable teachers that hold high expectations for all of their students. These teachers would also possess strong content knowledge in the area(s) they teach and know the best methods for helping students acquire this knowledge. Teachers would understand, connect to and relate well with their students, along with the families and communities from which they come. They would also know how to organize their classrooms for engaged learning. This means having access to a curriculum that is robust, inclusive and relevant — both to the present and developing realities of students.

Second, school administrators and staff must challenge the pervasive belief that economically underserved students and those of color cannot attain academic success. This belief is difficult to disrupt because it is taken for granted as truth. It is also reinforced in images found in popular culture, news media, policy and everyday talk in schools and society.

A vast array of assets, symbolic and material, exist in even the most economically marginalized communities, according to Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pedagogical theorist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These resources are both material and symbolic. Families care about their children and they want them to be successful, even as schools sometimes fail to see and acknowledge just how much they care. While structural challenges are real for students and families living in poverty, too often, schooling exacerbates, rather than seek to transgress these realities.

Third, schools and school districts must inquire into the conditions of why students miss school. In Tennessee, this process began with the initial questions raised in the State Plan around the relationship between chronic absenteeism rates and exclusionary school discipline practices, such as out-of-school suspensions. Suspensions and expulsions are counted as official absences so students receiving these disciplinary measures have higher rates of absenteeism.

It is well-documented that black children (including black females) are severely impacted by exclusionary school discipline practices, many of which rely on teacher judgement or are for minor, nonviolent infractions. In its plan, the Tennessee Department of Education noted it will collect data for three years around chronic absenteeism to monitor whether exclusionary disciplinary practices exacerbated school absence. If well-founded, policymakers will add this metric to the existing opportunity to learn indicator in future plans.

While collecting data on attendance and disciplinary practices is vital, it is not enough to flesh out why chronically absent children miss school. Talking directly to children and youth about why they miss school, and more importantly, inquiring into what their experiences are like when there will tell a lot about the quality of school for them.

It remains to be seen if adding the metric of chronic absenteeism to the Tennessee accountability plan will improve the quality of schooling for its most underserved students. The overall utility of this decision hangs on how critically this charge is taken up and pursued. If done correctly, it may offer access to the opportunities to learn that the most underserved students need most.

Keffrelyn D. Brown is an associate professor of cultural studies in education in the department of curriculum and instruction at The University of Texas at Austin.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death on April 4. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.