Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 21: Summary and Conclusions

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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In the foregoing chapters an attempt has been made to describe the administrative machinery which has gradually been developed to protect the right to the minimum of education which the state has undertaken to secure to all its children. It has been necessary to study the history of the long years during which the friends of education in Illinois fought for the establishment of a free common-school system. During the succeeding period, the local authorities were busy providing the required school facilities but no attempt was made to enforce the use of those facilities, and the necessity of exercising compulsion on the community was not recognized by the state. Attention has been called to the gradual appreciation of the fact that, educational opportunities being provided, the child and the parent may have to be compelled to take advantage of them. Finally, a careful examination of the situation in Chicago indicates that, although the principle of compulsion has been accepted, there are defects in the legislation and in the administration of the law which deprive many children of the education ostensibly secured to them by law.

To meet these various defects in the compulsory education situation, radical changes are needed both in the child labor and compulsory education laws. Without waiting, however, for these legislative change,;, an improvement in the local situation could be brought about by certain changes, easily made, in educational policy. We do not undertake to recommend in detail the action to be taken, but we venture to suggest in somewhat general terms, certain changes the desirability of which

(347) seems to be established. The necessary statutory changes may briefly be summarized as follows:

1. That a state board or department of education be created which shall have, among other functions, the duty of supervising and standardizing the enforcement of the school attendance laws in all portions of the state. The compulsory education laws need not, like the factory acts, be exclusively enforced by state inspectors; but state educational inspectors should be authorized to see that the local authorities through their indifference do not nullify the law. Moreover, the state school funds should be distributed upon the basis of attendance rather than of enrolment or of minor population.[1]

2. That the exemption from school attendance of children between fourteen and sixteen " lawfully and necessarily employed" be done away with.

3. That the age of children who may be committed to the Parental School be raised to sixteen years.

4. That the age of lawful employment of children be raised from fourteen to sixteen years.

5. That the issuing of working papers be taken from the local school superintendents and given over to the state education authority.

6. That the new standard for the issuing of working papers should prescribe not only a new minimum age, sixteen instead of fourteen, but also (a) a minimum of physical development which shall insure that no child be put to work when he is physically unfit for work, and (b) a new minimum of educational development. The words "in English" should be added in the new law to the reading and writing tests, in order that every child, foreign or native c born, may include as one of his working tools a knowledge of the language of the country. But the educational minimum should be higher than this. To the present

(348) educational test should be added requirements as to a knowledge of arithmetic, which shall ensure that no child shall leave school to go to work before he has completed the sixth grade. This is, of course, an inadequate and unsatisfactory minimum. As a matter of fact, it is little enough for a democracy to require that all its children shall complete the work of the elementary schools. This can easily be done if the compulsory attendance age is extended to sixteen. It could, however, be done now if the compulsory attendance period began at five or even six, instead of seven years. Certainly the vast majority of children between five and seven are better off in a well-conducted school than they are in the streets or in an ill-kept home.

7. In addition to raising the age at which compulsory attendance shall cease, we venture to recommend that a system of compulsory day continuation schools be developed and that attendance upon these be required of working children under eighteen years of age for a certain specified number of hours per week. In this way, and in this way only, can the school keep under its supervision during the first difficult years of their working life the children who leave school to go to work.[2]


8. That provision be made for the regular attendance at special continuation schools of children between sixteen and eighteen who are not at work. In order that the school may keep in touch with the children who leave to go to work and in order that these children may not suffer from the demoralizing effects of idleness, the law should require the employer to return to the educational authorities the working certificate of any child leaving his employ; and it would then be the duty of the educational authorities to secure the immediate return of this child to school pending the finding of a new "job." Moreover the duty of securing the new "job" should devolve upon the local school authorities. That this can be done has been demonstrated by the successful work of the Employment Supervision Bureau which is now maintained by the Chicago Board of Education.

9. Finally, education should be made compulsory to some extent for all illiterate minors, a class of persons not provided for at present by the Illinois law. These illiterates would be young persons under twenty-one years of age, immigrants from Europe, or newcomers from other American states which at present make no provision, or inadequate provision, for compulsory school attendance. The new law should provide that all illiterate minors must attend continuation schools until they have reached the age of twenty-one, and the maintenance of such schools with day as well as evening classes should in this way be made mandatory upon the local educational authorities.

(350) Pending such changes as have been indicated in the school and child labor laws of the state, the following recommendations, which we believe can be adopted by the Board of Education without additional legislative authority, are suggested:

1. That the system of recording attendance be so reorganized that the facts with reference to non-attendance may be ascertained.

2. That causes of absence justifying excuse by principals and teachers be enumerated and defined.

3. That a transfer system be installed which shall mean the following-up of every child to whom a transfer is issued, until he is re-enrolled in school.

4. That provision be made at the Parental School for truant girls.

5. That the school census be taken annually in the early autumn instead of, as at present, biennially in the spring or early summer, and that a permanent register of all minors be kept with a record of their school attendance. This change should be made pending the establishment under state supervision of a permanent census board.

6. That there be gradually developed a staff of school visitors whose function it shall be to relate the school to the home and to render such services as will tend to do away with causes now leading to non-attendance and truancy.

7. That the Vocational Supervision Bureau be developed and adequately supported so that every child may be saved from the demoralization of "hunting a job" and idling on the street or working at unsuitable employments. So long as we allow the poorest children in the community to go to work at the age of fourteen, the educational authorities should assume the obligation of keeping in touch with the child after he leaves school, finding suitable work for him if such work is available, and, in default of suitable work, exercising such pressure as the law allows to compel the return of the child to school.

(351) Failing this, the community will continue to be troubled with the problem of "baby bandits" and juvenile crime., The money expended on the Vocational Supervision Bureau will do much to prevent the expenditure of larger sums on probation officers, jails, and correctional institutions for delinquent boys and girls.

A further recommendation concerns the federal government. We adopt the suggestion that has already been made by those interested in the immigration problem that the federal immigration authorities at the various ports of entry to which immigrants are admitted should send the names and addresses of all immigrant minors to the educational authorities of the various cities and towns which the immigrants specify as their destination. Only in this way can the compulsory education laws be made of service to the immigrant children who are so sorely in need of their protection. Only in this way can the immigrant be promptly and properly Americanized. We recommend that the local educational authorities request the Commissioner-General of Immigration and the Secretary of Labor to direct that such action be taken.


These recommendations we feel to be reasonable and conservative proposals. They are very far from including all desirable changes, but they include those for which it seems practicable to ask at the present time, and even these moderate changes will, we believe, contribute largely to the efficiency of the school system. We do not claim that they will wholly solve the problems connected with compulsory school attendance. The heavy burden resting on the heads of families among the poor should never be forgotten. We have called attention to the fact that the various laws for safeguarding the rights of children create new rights in them and lay new duties on the father. The performance of these duties necessitates meeting the cost of the child's support and care out of the father's earnings instead of from the earnings of the child; and this should mean, must mean, in fact, a higher standard of wages for the father. Only when wages have been raised to correspond to the rising standards of child-care, will the real weaknesses in the present system be wholly done away with.

It has not, perhaps, been sufficiently emphasized that truancy and non-attendance are primarily problems of poverty. It is because people are poor that they are tempted to take their children out of school and to put them to work while they are very young. "Man cannot live by bread alone" it was said many centuries ago; but it is also true that man cannot live by books alone. So long as vast numbers of people find it so difficult, and at times impossible, to provide adequate food and clothing for the children for whom the state is providing education, just so long will many children find it impossible to attend school regularly. The earlier compulsory laws in several states provided that children might be excused from compulsory attendance on the ground of poverty; that is, the law recognized that there were families in the community in which the child's earnings even at an early age were so necessary that the family's need of maintenance must be placed above

(353) the child's need of an education. Later, the law abolished this exemption on the ground of poverty and became universal in its application; but the law in laying new burdens upon parents who are already so overburdened, gave no new resources with which to meet the added requirements.

In a few states free instruction has been supplemented by free books, not for poor children alone but for all children. In a few countries the cost of the child's support has been shared when the educational authorities have also added free dinners, but the dinners are free only to destitute children. It is doubtful whether free dinners will ever be acceptable in this country unless like free education and free books, they are made free for all. If this is not done, those who most need the free services will not endure the humiliation of accepting them on the condition of proving destitution. It is a hopeful sign that, in a democracy like ours, people resent assistance for which they are singled out solely on the ground of their poverty.[4] But it should not be overlooked that even if these supplementary costs of education are made free, as instruction has now generally been made free, there remain the other costs of the child's maintenance for which his own earnings are no longer available when the state makes his school attendance compulsory. Obviously, the only solution in accord with the standards of a democracy is such a permanent lifting of the wage levels as will make possible the higher standard of living that is, in practice, demanded by the state.


  1. Note that the early laws provided for the apportionment of funds according to attendance. See Appendix I, doe. 5, p. 363.
  2. It is interesting to note that our experience in regard to the wastefulness of boy and girl labor has been duplicated in England, and that the remedy of the continuation school was recommended in 1909 by the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress. " We have therefore come to the conclusion," says the minority report, "that, if we want to turn into trained and competent workmen the 300,000 boys who now annually start wage-earning at something or another, there is only one practicable plan: we must shorten the legally permissible hours of employment for boys, and we must require them to spend the hours thus set free in physical and technological training." The majority report also recommends raising the school-leaving age to lit teen and ---school supervision until sixteen, the re-placement in school of boys not properly employed." It is unfortunately true that the English boy or girl who leaves school to go to work has, in the great majority of cases, reached a higher grade in school than the American boy or girl who goes to work. Our schools may or may not be better than, for example, the London "Council Schools." At any rate we spend lavishly upon them. But a vast expenditure goes into the higher grades and high schools which a great majority of our working children never reach. The compulsory education period for the London boy or girl begins at live instead of seven. It is a serious question to which more thought should be given as to whether the child who is to leave school to go to work at the earliest age the law allows should not begin his period of compulsory attendance at five instead of seven years of age. If this is not done our continuation schools will be doing the work of the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades instead of providing high grade technological training.
  3. The report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws of 1909 may be profitably referred to again at this point. The minority report says, "With regard to the need for extending, to boys between fourteen and eighteen, something like the supervision and control exercised over them whilst at school, there is abundant evidence. At present, as in the past, it is mainly the 'juvenile adult,' between sixteen and twenty-one, who recruits our prison population. It is the absence of any system of control and organisation for the employment of the young which is universally declared to be one of the principal causes of wrong-doing. 'When a boy leaves school the hands of organisation and compulsion are lifted from his shoulders. If he is the son of very poor parents, his father has no influence, nor, indeed, a spare hour, to find work for him; he must find it for himself; generally he does find a job, and if it does not land him into a dead alley at eighteen he is fortunate. Or he drifts, and the tidy scholar soon becomes a ragged and defiant corner loafer. Over So per cent of our charges admit that they were not at work when they got into trouble- (Minority Report, Part II, p. 653).
  4. It is interesting to note that when the free-school law of 1855 was passed, the proposal to make education free only for the poor was rejected. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction said in his report to the Nineteenth General Assembly of Illinois: "I cannot too strongly urge the importance of making education tree, alike to the rich and the poor. The system which provides for the education only of the poor is necessarily unsuccessful. It has ever been, and ever will be, regarded as a part of the pauper system; and in a country like ours few will consent to appear on the pauper list." See Appendix 1, doc. 10, p. 373.

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