Sunday, August 03, 2014

Attendance, Discrimination, and LDA

In case you missed it, Tenured Radical has a thought-provoking piece claiming that class attendance policies discriminate against students with disabilities.

The argument is that many students have “invisible” disabilities that prevent regular attendance, and that blunt-instrument attendance policies put those students at a disadvantage.  (Invisible disabilities would include ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, lyme disease, and the like.  They aren’t obvious to external observers in the way that, say, a wheelchair is.)  To a professor who hasn’t been notified of the disability, a student who goes off her meds and stops showing up may be indistinguishable from a student who just can’t be bothered.  

But it’s not as simple as that.

Invisible disabilities are real, and they can be severe.  In some cases, they can also wax and wane in intensity, so a student who seems “fine” for a while can suddenly take a turn for the worse.  Punishing a student for taking time to manage a medical issue isn’t right.

That said, though, colleges at which students are eligible to receive federal financial aid are required to track and report Last Dates of Attendance (LDA).  If a student who is receiving aid for a class walks away during the semester, the college is on the hook to report when that happened.  Depending on when it happened, the aid may have to be reduced.  The idea behind it is that the feds don’t want to be on the hook for educational expenses for an education that stopped happening.  Depending on how aid is administered and which week the student stops showing up, sometimes colleges have to reach out to departed students to claw back money that was already awarded.  Given how close to the financial edge many students are, you can imagine how pretty that process is.

Even asynchronous online classes are subject to the LDA requirement.  It’s trickier to define in that setting, for the obvious reason that there’s no set class time to miss.  In recognition of that, the feds define the LDA as the last date of some academically substantive interaction.  That means more than simply logging on.  It could mean turning in an assignment, taking an exam, or participating in an online discussion, among other things.  

The feds don’t waive the LDA requirement for students with disabilities.  That means that colleges can’t, either.  

Ideally, students with invisible disabilities will self-identify to the on-campus office charged with serving them, and will get the documentation to give their professors explaining what they need.  A professor who has a general attendance policy would be on solid ground granting exceptions for a student with a documented disability that requires more flexibility.  (We’d still need to track the LDA, but other than that, we could be flexible.)  When everyone does their part, that approach works pretty well.  But students don’t always self-identify or self-advocate.  Sometimes they don’t want to admit that they need help; sometimes they fear stigma; sometimes the paperwork requirement is too daunting; sometimes they’re feeling fine for a while and want to see if they can do it “on their own.”  

(Similarly, in a perfect world, students who decide to walk away from courses would submit “withdrawal” forms on the way out.  Many do, but enough don’t that we need to track LDA independently.)

So even with a formal withdrawal process, and an active Office for Services to Students with Disabilities, and a well-developed protocol for notifying faculty of needed accommodations, colleges still need some independent tracking of attendance.  The formal mechanisms are great, but reality isn’t as tidy as the formal mechanisms.  

Attendance policies also do some educational good.  They make group work, lab work, and clinicals possible.  (I literally cannot imagine an attendance-optional protocol for Nursing clinicals.  The entire program would collapse.) They serve as a valuable “nudge” to get dithering students to show up.  And they help to inculcate a habit of timely attendance that employers on advisory boards constantly mention as a crucial “soft skill” often lacking in new employees.  Learning to drag yourself in on time when you’d rather not may not show up on Bloom’s taxonomy, but it matters in the work world.  If we tossed that out for fear of invisible disabilities, we’d lose much of the invisible curriculum on which employers are counting.  That may not be obvious at an elite SLAC, but at a community college, it’s a very big deal.

Even the definition of “mandatory attendance” can get murky.  If you don’t have a formal attendance policy, but lab work can only be done in the lab during certain hours, and you can’t pass the class without lab work, then you have a de facto attendance policy.  In my teaching days, I used quizzes as a de facto attendance policy, because they offered a double benefit: they encouraged students to do the reading and to show up.  Classes always ran much more smoothly when they did both.

On a formal level, we can address invisible disabilities by documenting and accommodating them.  But on the ground, I know that often falls short.  Is there a better way to accommodate the very real needs of people wrestling with invisible issues without losing the real benefits of mandatory attendance?