Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 15: The School Census as a Means of Enforcing the Attendance Law

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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In a recent report on Compulsory School Attendance, by the United States Bureau of Education, attention is called to the use of the school census as a means of enforcing the school attendance provisions of the various school laws. According to the report:

To secure the enrolment of pupils, several factors are necessary, the most important of which is a complete census of all children of compulsory school age . . . . . That an annual census is necessary to secure enrolment is obvious. Every year children move from one district to another, and others have reached the compulsory age many immigrant children may have arrived who would not be discovered by the truant officer without a census list. If a school census has been taken, the teachers of the public, private and parochial schools can promptly check off those not enrolled during the first few weeks of the school term. The truant officers can then easily locate them and secure their attendance.[1]

Unfortunately, however, Illinois is one of those states in which the statute makes no provision for the taking of a school census as a means of enforcing the school attendance requirement. The purpose of the school census, in Illinois as in many other states where a census is required, is to secure the enumeration of the minor population as a basis for the distribution of the state or county school fund. It may, indeed, be said that the Illinois statute provides only indirectly for a school census.

(212) Thus the Illinois school law declares that the common school fund of the state is to be distributed among the various counties "in proportion to the number of persons in each county under the age of twenty-one years as ascertained from the next preceding state or federal census." The distribution within the county, however, is made on the basis of a local enumeration.[2] The various school districts, therefore, find it necessary to take a school census, that is, a census of minor population, as a basis for claiming a proper share of the common school fund within the county. An additional reason for an enumeration is that the statistical material necessary for the reports of the state superintendent of public instruction can be obtained only in this way. The state superintendent is required by statute to report to the governor before each regular session of the legislature (i.e., biennially) concerning the "condition of the schools in the several counties of the state . . . . the number of persons in each county under twenty-one years of age and the number of persons between the ages of twelve and twenty-one unable to read and write," together with various other items of information.

The Chicago school census seems to be taken biennially because, although an annual enumeration would perhaps result in Chicago's securing a larger share of the fund assigned to Cook County since the school population is probably increasing

(213) with greater rapidity in Chicago than in other parts of the county, the Board of Education has decided that the expense of taking the census is so great that it is better to do without the increased share of the fund than to bear the cost of an annual enumeration, and the taking of a biennial census meets the requirement of the state law regarding the statistics to be sent to the state superintendent of public instruction for his biennial report.

The Illinois law thus represents a view of the school census that is now coming to be regarded as obsolete. It is no longer believed that there should be a school census merely to secure an equitable distribution of school funds or to furnish crude statistics to a state superintendent who has little, if any, power to prevent the unsatisfactory conditions that might be revealed by the statistics. On the contrary, the school census is regarded as a most important means of securing the thorough enforcement of a compulsory attendance statute. In a chapter dealing with the subject of compulsory attendance in the annual report for 1912, the New York State Department of Education emphasized the importance of a school census:

Our annual school census at present forms the basis of the enforcement of child labor and attendance laws, and serves this end only, yet the purpose sought is so important and far reaching as to make the taking of the census one of the most important duties devolving upon school authorities, because a thorough enforcement of these laws is necessarily dependent upon accurate and reliable census information. However, we are not proud of the care and interest manifested on the part of the authorities in taking school censuses. Reliable census information is more often than otherwise lacking in cities and villages and even in rural communities and hamlets where the census may be taken easily and with small expense. All this is true, notwithstanding the fact that the law specifically provides for the taking of the census and the filing of a copy of same in school records available for the use of teachers, attendance officers, inspectors and all others having a right to such information.


A similar passage from the 1910 report of the Massachusetts Board of Education confirms the view of the school census found in the New York report:

In more populous centers school attendance officers are greatly handicapped by the absence of reliable information regarding the children on whom school attendance is obligatory. An annual census is required in the towns and cities of Massachusetts, but this census is not taken in such a way as to furnish information which attendance officers can use. Students of school administration are agreed that in more populous areas some form of permanent registration of all children who come under the school attendance laws [and it is to be remembered, that in some cases this extends to the age of eighteen in Massachusetts] should be provided. In connection with the taking of the annual school census it would be possible to provide a card record giving age, parentage and other data of importance, which card record could after comparison with the registration of the school, become the basis on which attendance officers could investigate illegal absence.

The suggestion made in the foregoing paragraphs that, to be thoroughly effective as a means of enforcing the compulsory law, the old-fashioned annual or biennial school census must be superseded by a permanent census department has already been adopted for the larger cities in the state of New York. The modern view is that registration instead of enumeration is needed if the desired results are to be secured. In 1909 the bill creating a permanent census bureau in every city of the first class passed the New York state legislature, and although the machinery for the registration system is still in process of being perfected, the immense service that could be rendered by such a permanent census system was promptly demonstrated.[3]


How far Illinois has lagged behind in this matter is indicated by the fact that the city of Chicago does not have even an annual census, and that the biennial census is taken in the spring at a time when little service can be rendered by returning children to school. In the year 1910 the taking of the school census was turned over to the Department of Compulsory Education, and the following discussion of the Chicago school

(216) census relates only to the enumerations that have been made under the auspices of that department.

With regard to the present methods of taking the Chicago school census, the first question to be raised is the advisability of taking the census at the close of the school year in May or June. It does not appear that this time is selected because of any legal requirement as to the collection of statistics. And if a school census is to be a means of discovering children who have slipped out of school or children who are trying to slip out of school, it should be taken in the early part of the school year, preferably in September and certainly not later than October. Children who were then discovered out of school could be placed in school and kept there under the supervision of the truant officers presumably for the entire school year. It is of little value to discover in May that children are unenrolled, to enter them in school for the few remaining weeks of the school year, and then to give them the opportunity to lose themselves again before the reopening of the schools in the fall. To secure its share of the county fund, the school district must send in its data as to the minor population and school enrolment before the first of July. The theory underlying the spring enumeration may be that the postponement is likely to mean larger returns and therefore a larger share of the appropriation.[4]


The objection is raised that too many families have not returned to the city in September to make this a desirable month for enumeration, but it may be pointed out that only a very small proportion of the child population of Chicago belongs to the fortunate class that migrates from the city in the summer and remains away through September. This may be a conspicuous portion of the population, but it is not a large portion.

But the astonishing fact about the Chicago school census is that it seems to be useless as a means of discovering either unenrolled children or children unlawfully absent from school. In fact, according to the tables that are published in the school census for 1910, for 1912, and for 914, there is apparently no difference between the total number of children in Chicago between seven and fourteen years of age and the number of children in that age group who are enrolled in school. For example, the total number of children between seven and fourteen attending school in 1914 is said to be 285,878; the total population between seven and fourteen is 285,878. Table XXVII compiled from the three school census reports that have been issued by the Department of Compulsory Education seems to indicate that the total enrolment corresponds exactly with the total minor population.

Table XXVII Number of Children Between Seven and Fourteen of Age Attending School and Total Population of Chicago Between Seven and Fourteen Years of Age
(Compiled from the School Census Reports for 1910, 1912, and 1914)
Year Attending School Not in School for 30 consecutive days Total Attending School Total Population of Chicago Between 7 and 14
Public Private
1910 186,344 61,444 3,768 251,556 251,556
1912 187,120 68,911 2,419 258,450 258,878
1914 210,227 74,141 1,510 285,878 285,878


The statement that the total school enrolment and the total minor population seem to correspond exactly is made on the assumption that children who are classified as "not in school for thirty consecutive days" are enrolled children. The tables given in the school census do not include such classes as "number of children unenrolled " or "number of children unlawfully absent from school." Nor does there seem to be any place in the classification for the children who are not attending school because of mental and physical incapacity, although it is unnecessary to point out that there are a considerable number of such children in Chicago. These children, like the unenrolled children that are found, must be included under the heading "not in school for 30 days" in spite of the fact that they are not in school at all.

In the text accompanying the tables in the last school census, that of 194, there is to be found under the heading "Attendance Conditions" the following statement which seems to be the only explanation of what is meant by the classification "not in school for thirty consecutive days":

There are 285,878 children of compulsory attendance age (between seven and fourteen Years) in the city . . . . . Of this number only 1,510 were absent from school thirty consecutive days preceding May 4, 1914. Investigation by truant officers (who followed up the work of the enumerators to co-operate for the promotion of attendance) showed that with few exceptions, these 1, 5 10 children were enrolled either at public or private schools and were temporarily absent for cause and excused on account of illness, under suspension, accident, misfortune in the family, or extenuating circumstances that justified temporary absence. In a few instances where they were not enrolled, or were truants, they were immediately placed in school by truant officers.[5]

The italic in the sentences above is not found in the report, but has been added merely to call attention to these significant

(219) words. For it appears that "in a few instances " the classification "not in school for thirty days" includes children who were out of school for more than thirty days and children who were not enrolled in school at all. It is admitted, then, in the text accompanying the statistical tables that there are some cases of unenrolled children found by the census enumerators, but it is not considered worth while, even in a report of twenty-four printed pages, to tell either the number of unenrolled children discovered or the number of children unlawfully absent from school when the enumeration was made. Would a truant or any other child found by the census enumerators to be unlawfully absent from school but who had not, at the time of the enumeration, been absent thirty consecutive days be counted in the groups " attending public or private schools " ? This appears to be the case, and it seems only fair to ask that since the census enumerators must have been instructed to deal with such cases some account of their number should have been published.

Moreover, it is not clear on what authority children are classified as "attending school" or "absent for thirty days." Is the statement of the parent accepted without verification, or are the school records and the school census sheets compared in order to determine these facts ?

Further discussion of such a cause of absence as "under suspension" should be given. It is desirable to know exactly how many children in Chicago have been excluded from school in this way, and it is only fair to ask whether we have not yet resources in the way of truant rooms and parental school cottages to prevent the suspension of children for thirty days.

A wasteful feature of the Chicago school census is that so much space is given to matters having no connection with the question of school attendance; in the 194 census, for example, the entire adult as well as minor population was enumerated, and the right of the Board of Education to spend money on

(220) enumerating the adult population of Chicago might well be questioned. Much irrelevant matter is also to be found in the text. There is, for example, a discussion of "our infant inhabitants" in Chicago, the number of wards having the largest number of babies, "births and deaths," "occupational population," "occupational population of the Loop district," decennial increases in the Chicago population since 1840, and other matters which may be of some interest to someone but which seem to have no relation to the enforcement of a compulsory education law. Certainly such matters could well be sacrificed to a more detailed presentation of facts regarding non-attendance.

In general, the objections to the present system of taking the census in Chicago may be summarized as follows:

1. A biennial census is inadequate as a means of enforcing the attendance law.

2. The school census should be confined to the enumeration of minors. The last school census, of 1914, was a census of the entire population. The superintendent of compulsory education recommended in the first census taken under his supervision that the "biennial school census should include all ages, adults as well as minors in federal census years as well as other periods." This would seem to imply that the primary purpose of the census taking was to count, at least biennially, the whole Chicago population and not to aid in the enforcement of the compulsory law. If the latter object were desired, it would have been wiser to recommend that the money be expended for an annual census of the minor population.[6]


3. The time of the taking of the school census should be changed from the end to the beginning of the school year. If the census is to be a means of enforcing the compulsory law, then it should be taken, not in May or June, but in September or October. Children placed in school in May will disappear again before the next autumn. Children placed in school in September or October should be there for an entire year. It is another indication of the failure to understand the use of the census in connection with the enforcement of the school attendance requirements that in the census reports of 1910 the following recommendation was made: "The school census should be taken in June and July when the teachers and truant officers are idle. With these trained experts as supervisors and enumerators in the canvass, it would prove prolific of good results." It is not clear just what the value would be of discovering in July, when the schools have been closed for a two months' summer vacation, that certain children had not attended school during the past year. Certainly cases of children unlawfully absent from school could not be discovered when the schools were not in session.

4. The method of presenting the statistical results should be entirely reorganized. It is not necessary to go into this matter in detail since the analysis of the statistics that appear in the 1914 census report shows how impossible it is to obtain from them such important facts as the number of unenrolled children, the number of children enrolled but unlawfully absent, the number of mentally and physically defective children who have been found unenrolled and who are found upon examination by the Department of Child-Study to be either fit for special rooms or institution,. or whose condition is such that no provision is made for them under our present system.

Plans for the future need not be made in detail for the improvement of a system that is so barren of results. The

(222) most important question to be raised here is concerning the official or department under whose auspices the enumeration is to be made. Close as is the connection between the school census and the work of the Department of Compulsory Education, it is doubtful whether or not a department should be asked to make a report which might seem to indicate that its own work was inefficient. A school census taken with thoroughness and care in a city as large as Chicago is bound to discover a very considerable number of unenrolled and unlawfully absent children. It is probable that any compulsory department would be reluctant to discover such facts.[7] If this is true then the taking of the school census should be transferred to some other department, possibly the department of statistics.

If the hope of an efficient state educational board or commission were not an impracticable one at the present time, it would be suggested that the census taking for the whole state should be done directly under state authority. The local authorities should not be asked to supervise and report on the enforcement of the compulsory education law any more than

(223) upon the enforcement of the child labor law.[8] A permanent state census board could be established which should be continuously active, taking the census in the opening of the school year in the larger cities, then enumerating for the small towns and rural districts, then returning to check up again on the larger cities, and so on in rotation.

Failing such a system, plans might be laid looking toward the establishment of a system of continuous enumeration or permanent census bureau in Chicago. Such a system could be most easily carried on at present by the different principals. That is, in each school might be kept a file containing an up-to-date register of each house in the district, showing the number of children in each family in each house. This would mean that each principal should have a clerk or clerks whose business it would be to keep this file up to date somewhat after the manner in which the "school visitor" in an English city keeps up his lists. These principals' clerks or visitors might combine the work of keeping up their file with the visiting teacher work which is described in the following chapter. The work of the Department of Compulsory Attendance need not be done away with since the court work could all be left to this department.

(224) Recalcitrant parents and "habitual truants" might be referred to truant officers for prosecution, while the persistent search after the non-attending child should be done by a large staff of officers working on each day's list of absences for each individual school.

Plans looking toward a permanent school census system under state control should not be considered revolutionary since they are already being considered in Massachusetts, where a state board of education already has wide authority. In fact, this chapter may well be brought to a close with the following extract from a discussion of this subject in the Annual Report of the Massachusetts State Board of Education for 1909-10:

Probably of more serious consequence educationally than the relatively small number of cases of truancy which occur is the large amount of irregular attendance for which there is no sufficient reason. It is now impracticable to measure this, because no one assembles at the close of each school year the attendance statistics of all children, whether in public or private schools or at work. Until this is done, no satisfactory means can be found for determining the exact loss to school children through preventable irregular attendance.

For these and other reasons it may in time prove desirable for the Board to extend its work in such a way as to provide some inspection or supervision of the enforcement of compulsory attendance laws. At least one of the agents of the Board has in the past given some attention to this matter, especially in cases where local authorities were indifferent. The effect has been most salutary. A state agent carries a large weight of authority when he goes into a community with the view of co-operating in the effort to deal with recalcitrant parents and of inducing school committees and superintendents to be more active in enforcing the law. Furthermore, it would be the duty of a state agent employed for this particular purpose, to develop a system of registration which should be carried out by attendance officers. It has been sufficiently demonstrated that to keep up this registration would not greatly increase the responsibility of these officers, and it would, on the other hand,

(225) materially strengthen their position in enforcing attendance. What is needed is an inventory and record of the children in the community who are legally required to attend school. In co-operation with the teachers, it would be a simple matter to record on individual cards at the close of each year the details of attendance, whether in parochial or public schools. In this way, interested individuals would always be able to locate all children of the community with whom the state is concerned, and it would be possible a so from time to time to measure the amount of school attendance.

Connecticut has a satisfactory mechanism of just this sort. The state attendance officers are called upon to deal with difficult cases, the enforcement of which would prove a burden on school committees and superintendents. In the near future it would seem desirable for Massachusetts to establish some similar procedure.

Is it too much to hope that Illinois may also become progressive enough in educational matters to consider the adoption of a similar policy ?


  1. U.S. Bureau of Education Bulletin, 1914, No. 2, Compulsory School Attendance, by W. S. Deffenbaugh, Anna Tolman Smith, W. Carson Ryan, Jr., and William H. Hand. Washington, 1914- See especially pp. 12-14.
  2. See Revised Statutes, chap. 12 2, sec. 2115: "The county superintendent of schools shall apportion and distribute, under rules and regulations prescribed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the principal of the county fund to the townships and parts of townships in his county, according to the number of persons under twenty-one years of age returned to him. The principal of the county fund go distributed shall he added to the principal of the township fund of the townships and parts of townships in his county. The interests, rents, issues, and profits arising and accruing from the principal of the county fund shall be distributed to the townships and parts of townships in his county, as required by the provisions of this Act."
  3. In 1914 by an amendment to the Greater New Y ork charter some radical changes were made in the organization of the permanent census board in New York City, and the present Bureau of Compulsory Education, School Census and Child Welfare was made possible. Further experimentation will undoubtedly be needed before the permanent census system is perfected, but that such experimentation will result in a vastly improved school attendance cannot be doubted. In fact, within two years after the passage of the permanent census law of 1909, the Department of Education of the state of New York called attention to the substantial results that had already been accomplished. Thus the annual report for 1911 states that the permanent census bureaus were "still in a tentative condition, though much progress has been made toward perfecting their organization. The work, however, has apparently progressed slowly because the lines upon which the bureaus are being organized and operated are entirely and necessarily new. Such a bureau had never before been established in any American city and, therefore, the setting up of the bureau machinery called for initiative, sound judgment, special aptitude and ability on the part of persons placed in charge of the work . . . . . Still, even at this early day, proof is not lacking of their substantial value in connection with the enforcement of attendance laws as indicated by figures submitted in this report.
    "The following data are significant. In the city of Rochester, operations of the bureau brought to light 518 children unlawfully out of school. These were reported to the attendance division of the city for investigation and either each child was placed in school or the case otherwise lawfully disposed of.
    "In the city of Buffalo, 6,318 children were found unlawfully out of school. All of these cases were reported to the attendance division and each properly investigated and satisfactorily disposed of.
    " In the city of New York, 23,241 children were found unlawfully out of school by the census dragnet, while the initial enumeration of the city, for reasons mentioned in a previous report, is not yet entirely completed. To date, 17,2311 of these cases have been investigated by the city's attendance division and properly disposed of. The others will receive attention as rapidly as may be.
    "The machinery of the attendance and child labor laws has been in operation in these three cities for over sixteen years, and with much success, yet the fact that the effort of the bureau located over 30,000 children unlawfully out of school is proof beyond question of the value of these bureaus as a very material aid in the enforcement of attendance laws."-Eighth Annual Report of the New York State Department of Education (1912), pp.325-26.
  4. Since the writing of this chapter the school census of 1916 has been taken, but although this census was taken in the last week of March, somewhat earlier than usual, the charge was made in the Chicago newspapers that the change in the time of taking the census was not a matter of educational policy but was due to a desire to give the city administration a large number of "jobs" to dispose of at a time when they might be used to influence the spring elections in favor of the administration candidates. This charge was denied by the Superintendent of Compulsory Education who nevertheless persistently refused to publish the names of persons appointed to positions as enumerators. There is, of course, every reason why the census enumerators and supervisors should all be selected by civil-service methods.
  5. Report of the Chicago School Census Of 1914, p. 4.
  6. See School Census, 1910: "The city of Chicago, through the agency of the Board of Education should take a municipal census every two years to insure a full and accurate count of its adult population as well as its minors and complete nativity statistics of all inhabitants who mark the progress of a civic growth, which is the pride of the Chicagoan and the envy of the world." This last sentence seems to indicate only too plainly that the school census is to be taken in order that we may have an annual excuse for glorifying our bigness, not because school attendance is important.
  7. Thus, after the work of taking the school census had been given to the Department of Compulsory Education, each census report contained a statement to the effect that school attendance had never been better. In the census report of 1910 (P. 4, paragraph headed "Temporary Absentees"), we are told that "in comparison to the great increase in enrolment and membership and the perennial illness incidental to childhood, the attendance conditions are the best within the life of the schools." In 1912, in the synopsis of his census report, the superintendent of compulsory education in his capacity of census-taker noted that he found "attendance conditions at the public and private schools, of children between seven and fourteen years [the compulsory attendance age] the. best within the life of Chicago" (p. 3). And again in the school census of 1914 (p. 4) we are told by the same authority that " the reports from principals at the public schools and teachers in charge of the private schools verified the fact that attendance conditions were the best [among children of compulsory education age in particular] within the history of the schools" (p. 4).
  8. No attempt has been made in these pages to discuss the use of the school census as a means of securing an equitable distribution of funds. Quite properly the state law specifies that the distribution of the state fund among the different counties should be only on the basis of a state or federal enumeration evidently on the supposition that the temptation to exaggerate the title to funds would be too great for the authorities of some of the counties concerned. The question might be raised as to whether this is not true also of distribution within the county which is now based on local returns. The whole situation would be easily improved if all the work of enumeration were under state control. The question might also be raised here as to whether school funds should be distributed on the basis of the minor population instead of on the basis of the minor population attending school. In the early days, it will be remembered, teachers were paid in proportion to the number of days their pupils attended school. See, for example, Appendix IV, doc. 2, sec. 4, pp. 433-34.

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