If a child skipped out on 10 or more days of school during the year, he would not be congratulated — and not just because he would be considered a chronic truant under compulsory attendance laws on the books in every state. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz and Lisa Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund noted in their study of predictors of academic failure, a sixth-grader missing 18 or more days of school has just a one-in-six chance of graduating six years later.
So it should be even less excusable that any teacher misses 11 or more days of school every year. Three decades of work by researchers such as the late James Bruno of University of California, Los Angeles, and Ronald Ehrenberg of Cornell University have determined, when teachers skip school, children bear the consequences, both in being taught by lower-quality substitute teachers and, ultimately, in skipping school themselves. Not only does high teacher absenteeism serve as a poor example to kids, it is also communicates to other teachers (especially younger instructors entering the profession) that it is okay to not be committed to their work and the children they serve. When you also keep in mind (as my father-in-law, a retired teacher and school leader, reminds me) that the school year usually lasts 180 days, with plenty of break time in the form of holidays as well as summer recess, there are few justifiable reasons why any teacher should miss a school day.
Which is why the report released this week by the National Council of Teacher Quality on the high levels of teacher absenteeism in 40 of the nation’s largest school districts should be disconcerting — and the response of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to the data is absolutely shameful. It is high time to revamp the policies that lead to so many teachers being away from school — and far too many kids paying the price.
The fact that the average teacher in those districts missed 11 days of school in 2012-2013 is absolutely disheartening. With 14,041 teachers — or six percent of the 234,031 teachers working in the 40 districts analyzed — skipping school on any given day, 224,656 children (or 16 kids for every teacher gone AWOL) were either taught by a substitute teacher (who often lacks subject-matter competency to help the kids in their learning) or shuffled into other classrooms.
Even worse, just 16 percent of teachers missed fewer than three days of school each year, while another 40 percent missed fewer than 10 days of the school year. On the other hand, 16 percent of teachers skipped 18 or more days during — or at least 10 percent of — the school year, while another 28 percent skipped out on 11-to-17 days. Put simply, two out of every five teachers skipped 10 or more days of school. If any of these teachers were children in California or Indiana (where chronic truancy is defined as, respectively, five and 10 days of unexcused absence from school), they would already be considered truant.
The news gets even more abysmal once you look within each district. Six districts — Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Duval County, Fla., Nashville and Portland — have the dubious honor of having more than a quarter of their teachers chronically AWOL from the schools they operate; the average Cleveland teacher skipped out on 15 days of school during the year, the highest level of average absenteeism in the study. Only three districts — Indianapolis Public Schools, D.C. Public Schools, and Milwaukee — can claim that 25 percent or more of their teachers skip out on three or fewer days of school. Even that is not great news: The average IPS teacher still skipped out on six days of classroom work during 2012-2013. [Your editor, by the way, wrote about IPS’ teacher absenteeism issues nearly a decade ago.]
Sadly, none of what NCTQ has turned up is shocking. In a 2012 analysis of federal civil rights data by the Center for American Progress, Raegen Miller (now of Teach for America) found that 36 percent of all teachers in 2009-2010 skipped 10 or more days of school. High teacher absenteeism is just another aspect of the human resource management problems — including hiring processes that leave teaching positions unfilled even as new school years begin — that plague traditional districts in nearly every part of the country.
But it doesn’t mean that a sensible person shouldn’t be incensed by this. After all, teacher quality is critical to improving student achievement; a teacher missing work means a kid not learning. For taxpayers, it is especially galling because the average teacher is skipping work 83 percent more often than the average American worker in the private sector (who misses only six days in a far-longer 240-day work year). Those teachers who show up every day and miss almost no time from classrooms certainly deserve our praise. But far too many of their colleagues are not showing up at all.
Yet from where Weingarten and the AFT sits, the high level of teacher absenteeism is something to be cheered. As far as Weingarten is concerned, this “shows the extraordinary dedication of teachers across the country” to their classroom instruction, and dismisses concerns about absenteeism as just another example of reformers looking to “find fault with teachers”.
Of course, Weingarten would think that. After all, admitting that teacher absenteeism is way too high would require the AFT to cop to the underlying culprit: The traditional system of teacher compensation the union, along with the National Education Association, defends and sustains itself.
One of the problems with how we currently compensate teachers is that instructors are given perverse incentives to do anything other than focus on providing children in their care with high-quality education. This is particularly true when it comes to the array of sick and personal days — an average of 14 days a year — granted under state laws and collective bargaining agreements. Veteran instructors in Hartford, for example, are given 25 days of sick and personal leave time.
Thanks to these generous sick day policies, along with rules allowing for those days to be carried over for into following years, there are too many incentives for teachers lacking commitment to their work to skip out on classroom duty. A teacher can accumulate almost a full school year’s worth of sick leave, then use it to skip out on instruction if they so choose. In some cases, the teachers are AWOL more days than they are allowed in a given year. As NCTQ points out, teachers in 11 districts — Dallas, Jacksonville, San Antonio, Orlando, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Diego, Nashville, Austin, Portland and San Jose — took more sick and personal days than they were granted.
Another problem lies with state laws and collective bargaining agreements that restrict the ability of districts to fire chronically-absent teachers. As your editor noted yesterday in my Rare column on the Vergara v. California tort, cumbersome processes for teacher dismissals also give incentive to laggard and burned-out teachers to stay in jobs in spite of obvious evidence that they should leave. The fact that teacher absenteeism is as high in schools serving children from mostly middle-class households as in schools serving the poorest kids — along with the presence of the ever-dysfunctional IPS as the district with the lowest level of chronic teacher absenteeism — makes clear how generous leave policies combine with teacher dismissal rules for disastrous results.
Then there’s the archaic traditional school calendar itself, originally geared around harvesting times in rural communities of two centuries ago. Because the calendar forces teachers to stay off of work for a three-month block during summer, they lose the flexibility needed to address personal issues during off-work periods. If schools recessed once every three months instead of for a full summer block, teachers could handle their personal issues during periods when school is out of session.
The consequences of these failed policies are borne by children, who already struggle to get high-quality teachers in the first place. Because substitute teachers are often poorly trained (and usually teaching out of their fields of expertise when they are competent), kids are missing out on learning. Even when kids are placed in classrooms with regular teachers, the fact that those instructors don’t know what the kids may be studying also lead to wasted school time. Add in the $4 billion districts spend annually to cover teacher absences and hire substitutes — money that could be used for improving instruction, curricula, and school operations — and it becomes clear that kids and their families are being shortchanged financially as well as educationally.
It is far beyond time for reformers and others to get serious about teacher absenteeism. Doing so will require tackling policies that contribute to the problem as well as confronting NEA and AFT locals more-concerned about keeping the status quo quite ante.
This starts with more-sensible leave policies, along with the overall revamp of teacher compensation. Certainly eliminating sick days altogether would go a long way toward reducing teacher absenteeism. But considering that women of child-bearing age make up the vast majority of teachers in classrooms, districts must also provide leeway in situations such as pregnancy. Granting disability leave to teachers (including three months of maternity leave) would give teachers with legitimate health and family issues the time they need. Requiring teachers to provide medical notices for those days when they are sick also helps.
Overhauling teacher dismissal rules must also be on the table. School leaders must have the ability to fire instructors who are chronically skipping school. Moving to year-round schooling would also help. By scheduling breaks for one month out of every three during the year, teachers will get the time they need to handle personal issues without using up classroom time. [This, by the way, would also help families of students by providing them with more-predictable schedules, and keeping kids in urban cities off the streets during ever-volatile summer months, is a bonus for everyone.]
We must deal with chronic teacher absenteeism as seriously as we do student truancy. All of our children deserve better than class-skipping teachers.