Face It: Perfect Attendance Awards Are A Joke

by Steph Montgomery

As I sat in the bleachers of my kids' elementary school gym, and listened to the teachers and administrators give out a variety of awards to hoards of smiling and cheering children — including my own — I couldn’t help but notice one award that just felt... off, to me. The "perfect attendance" award.

You guys: what kind of an award is this?!

It’s not that I don’t think we should reward kids for their achievements, no matter how small. Of course we should. I, myself, reward my kids every single day for things like helping around the house, making good choices, showing kindness, working hard on academics, and trying new things. Honestly, I think the world would be a better place if we rewarded kids more and punished them less.

But while most of the awards given out at my kids' school assembly were intrinsically good — recognizing students who worked hard or who gave back to the school and their fellow students — the perfect attendance award, in my opinion, aren't about awarding those kids, or good behavior, or anything positive at all.

Courtesy of Steph Montgomery

I should probably tell you that my kids did not win a perfect attendance awards this year, for a variety of reasons. But I don’t dislike this particular award because I'm jealous. I don't like this particular award because I believe it to be very problematic.

The way I see it, this award is all about luck. Were you lucky enough to be born without a chronic illness, or into a family capable of getting you to school every day and on time? Were you lucky enough to not have a death in the family, or an emergency that required you to stay home from school? Are you lucky enough to have reliable access to reliable transportation? Do you have an immune system composed of steel, so you could successfully avoid getting sick all year long? Are you financially stable enough to have one parent stay home, so you don't have to juggle two work schedules and the needs of two careers?

I know I am privileged to be able to see my kids off to school each morning.

Luck. A parent's ability to get their kid to school on time every school day is based on luck more than it is based on anything else.

So why should some kids be rewarded for their luck, while others aren't? Why should we award children for something that is completely outside of their control, and very, very dependent on the privileges of their parents? I mean, my kids can't control if they get to school every day, and honestly, they shouldn't have to stress about it or try to power through an illness to make it to class just so they can receive an award at the end of the year. They are kids. It's not their responsibility, and as such, it's not something they should receive an award for.

Courtesy of Steph Montgomery

I know I am privileged to be able to see my kids off to school each morning. We have a bus stop in front of our house, and if they miss the bus I can drive them in the mini-van we are privileged to own, or send them to walk to school in the safe neighborhood where we are privileged to live.

And I don't want my kids to receive a reward for our privilege.

What about the kids for whom this is not reality? Should they miss out on being acknowledged because their mom doesn't have a car, their community doesn't offer free busing, the weather is crappy, or it's unsafe for them to walk by themselves if they miss the bus?

Perfect attendance awards inadvertently reward parents for sending their kids to school when they have absolutely no business being there.

What about the kids who have chronic conditions that require them to miss school for health reasons? The kids who take care of their younger siblings? The kids who are completely responsible for getting themselves to school, even though they shouldn't be?

I can't help but think of those kids, who are watching their classmates receive an award that, in all actuality, they didn't earn.

Courtesy of Steph Montgomery

And at a time when parents are refusing to vaccinate their kids, and our society doesn't accommodate working parents, should we really be rewarding kids for going to school sick? Perfect attendance awards inadvertently reward parents for sending their kids to school when they have absolutely no business being there. No award is worth infecting the entire student body, or putting immuno-compromised kids at risk.

The theory behind perfect attendance awards is that they motivate students to attend class. Which, for the record, I think is super important. I support public education and think that, for the most part, kids need to be there to learn every day. The problem is these awards don’t actually improve attendance. As reported by the Hechinger Report, researchers from Harvard, UCLA and Stanford actually studied the impact of these awards on school attendance. The researchers were surprised to discover that the prospect of receiving an award had absolutely no impact on school attendance, and even resulted in a drop in the number of kids receiving the award at the end of the school year. They attributed this drop on the kids thinking the awards were uncool, a sentiment with which I totally agree.

So, yeah, while I think school attendance is pretty important, I sincerely hope they do away with perfect attendance awards. I plan to at least try to send my kids to school on time most days next year, but they likely won't be winning any awards for it.

And that's perfectly OK with me.