John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

80% of Success is Simply Showing Up—Or Is It?

John Gardner

This now famous 2006 quote from Woody Allen rang in my ears recently when I had a conversation with a family member about their first grade child’s perfect attendance for the entire school year. This has been the stimulus for this blog posting about two things: the role of attendance in student success and how our incoming college students have been rewarded for the attainment of minimum standards.

In the course of this conversation I learned of the great disappointment of a family when they learned that their son was not going to be awarded a prize for perfect attendance in the entire first grade year even though they had been greatly looking forward to the conferral of such a prize. This seven year old attends an elite private school. He had indeed attended every day. And his parents had assumed that entitled him to a coveted perfect attendance award—coveted by both the parents and the child. But they learned just before the end of school year ceremony that there would be no prize because the child had been tardy a sufficient number of times and that when you are tardy this negates your eligibility for perfect attendance. So, the ante has been upped: not only do you have to attend every day, but attend on time. Surely these are important practical life skills acquisition lessons.

When I learned of the family’s disappointment I found myself trying to remember if when I was in elementary school in the early 50’s were there ever any incentives for me, like prizes or other forms of recognition, for perfect attendance. I couldn’t recall any. What I could recall was simply being expected to be present, and on time, every day.

Several days after this discussion with this parent I was reading in a South Carolina newspaper about state level awards that were being bestowed as a matter of official state policy to perfect attendance students. Now that really got my attention.

Woody Allen’s words of wisdom sprung to mind. Showing up is a key to success. But should we be in the business of rewarding people for simply showing up? That, however, is not the question. We are rewarding people for simply showing up. And, no matter how much I acknowledge the importance of being present in order to learn, and to developing an attitude of total family and individual commitment to regular, conscientious school participation, I just can’t quite accept the legitimacy of rewarding people for what they ought to do as a given. For me, this strikes me as setting an absolute minimum standard and rewarding the attainment thereof.

As I look to my own career in higher education, I know many of my students expected to be rewarded for simply showing up. While I always took attendance, and penalized students for excessive absences, I did not reward them for perfect attendance. I saw my duty as being to push them beyond minimal standards.

I have long advocated in my work with colleges and universities and their efforts to improve student success, the examination of attendance policies. It is always one of the things I look for as I review college catalogs. There is enormous variety, as one would expect, in such policies. Most leave the matter to the discretion of the faculty member—which I heartily concur with. Very few lay out any consistent policy of expectations with minimum expectations of how many cuts will be allowed. And I have never seen one policy that has a differential level of attendance expectations for first-year students, even though I have long urged consideration of such.

So, do students have to be present to learn? To earn credit? To win? Certainly, we should be talking about this. But in my experience, we avoid this discussion like the plague. It is a sure fire topic to result in raging controversy and differences with the majority of faculty usually coming down strongly that there should be no official policy about attendance, other than they should determine any such standards and expectations. The implicit but almost always unspoken sub text here is they don’t want to be in the business of monitoring student attendance because they don’t want anyone monitoring theirs. I understand that. I don’t want to be monitored either because I self monitor—exactly what many of our students don’t do—and exactly why they need more than minimum standards and expectations.

So what does it say about our culture when people achieve the perception of success by simply showing up? Is this something we should be inculcating in our seven year olds?

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