teacher absences

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently found teacher absences in Oklahoma City averaged 11 days in 2013, and 18 percent of teachers missed more than 18 days, as reported earlier this month in The Oklahoman.

The NCTQ is one of many astroturf think tanks that publishes paper after paper designed to make teachers look bad. It keeps up the drumbeat denying the existence of a teacher shortage.

I suspect that is why the NCTQ database included days lost to professional development in its study. That dubious methodological decision gave them an opportunity to overstate the national teacher absenteeism rate by up to 29 percent (by including professional leave and “other” in the total teacher absences due to sick and personal leave).

By the way, the number of teachers included in the NCTQ database is around 10 percent smaller than the number of teachers in the OKCPS database.

Assuming that the national average applies at least roughly to the OKCPS — if the NCTQ published the data in a fair manner — The Oklahoman’s lede would have been that the average OKCPS teacher misses about eight days per year due to illness or personal and family circumstances and is pulled out of the classroom three days a year by the system. Combine the two metrics and OKCPS teachers still have a 94 percent attendance rate. Those statistics would be average for the nation. They would seem unremarkable, and the story on teacher absences wouldn’t make the front page.

I suspect that Ben Felder’s balanced report disappointed the corporate-funded NCTQ. He is objective in addressing the complexity of the problems that cause chronic teacher absenteeism. He understands that teacher absences are both a cause and effect of a complex web of challenges facing high-poverty schools.

In his article, Felder quotes Ed Allen, the American Federation of Teachers of Oklahoma president, who explains that teachers face:

… discipline problems, a push toward high-stakes testing and other challenges associated with a student body with a high rate of poverty have created low morale. …

Teachers are in survival mode, and unless you change that foundation and change that culture nothing will change it. … Teachers take mental health days in Oklahoma City because they are so stressed out. We hear that all the time.

NCTQ data essentially useless

Under no circumstances would I downplay the harm done by chronic absenteeism of teachers but, as is the norm for that policy group, the NCTQ is useless in terms of asking questions that are intellectually honest and could help improve schools. It makes no sense to compare chronic teacher absenteeism across schools without controlling for the age of teachers. For instance, in the mid-1990s, John Marshall H.S. had the district’s best attendance rate for teachers, as we should have. We were Baby Boomers at the peak of our effectiveness, usually without small children at home or elderly parents.

At the end of my career at Centennial H.S., these same teachers were loudly berated for having the district’s lowest attendance rate because, “Obviously you do not want to come to school!” The truth was that, in addition to caring for elderly parents, our teachers were hospitalized for heart disease, cancer and an array of surgeries. And we had buried colleagues who had continued to work at our stressful job only to die prematurely. One year, I was the only person in my department who was not a survivor of a life-threatening medical crisis.

During nearly two decades in the OKCPS, I took two or three mental health days, depending upon how you define the term for a teacher calling in sick because he or she is too stressed out to come to work. Much of the stress predates the corporate school-reform era, but the problem became far worse after non-educators imposed policies based on the idea that better instruction and better professional development — school leadership, data and accountability; and creating a culture of “High Expectations!” and “No Excuses!” — can drive the improvement of high-poverty schools.

No Child Left Behind pushed professional development as if it could prompt transformative teaching improvements in high-challenge classes.

How workshops undermine school order

I saw the first example of the damage done by reform mandates during a tense morning in 2004. It became immediately clear to veteran teachers working the security entrance, checking bags for weapons and other contraband. We quickly started an investigation of gang-related violence from the previous night, which obviously would dominate the ensuing school day. We wrongly assumed that a previously scheduled professional development workshop that would take 20 percent of teachers out of the classrooms would be cancelled. We were wrong, and the resulting violence was especially bloody.

The same thing occurred in 2010, the day after a student was murdered. The professional development workshop called for one-fifth of our teachers to be out of the building. The workshop wasn’t cancelled, we weren’t able to properly supervise the lunchroom (where disputes often spin out of control) and gang-related fights spread quickly throughout the school.

During my last two years in the classroom, I started to get sick at my stomach when I was covered with a student’s blood. I started counting the number of former students and basketball buddies who had died prematurely or who had killed someone. Each time as I passed the number 40, I would lose count. (The toll later passed 50.) I then expanded the morbid ritual to include the five students who, after I’d had heart-to-heart conversations with them, wound up dead a few hours later.

Treating teachers as expendable will never work

Technocratic reformers essentially mandated that professional development would become a top priority for school improvement. Their theory might have been plausible if our schools were rolling in money and had redundancy baked into the system. Top-down reformers were in too much of a hurry to lay the foundation for significant improvements in teaching and learning in our underfunded systems. For instance, they didn’t bother to ask whether there would be qualified substitutes for teachers who were away from class during workshops.

And that brings us to the root of the teacher absenteeism problem: Teachers are treated as expendable. Too many technocrats believe they should be free to experiment on teachers and their students. In the case of my time at Centennial, the result was a school where about a third of the students were chronically absent, and the majority of teachers missed 11 days or more due to sickness, personal leave, professional development and other factors that are beyond their control.

If the NCTQ understood how impossible it would be to raise student performance under those circumstances, there would be no rational argument for its other anti-teacher, anti-union policies, such as undermining collective bargaining and using test-score growth to evaluate individual teachers.

Moreover, I wonder if anyone in their offices has ever called in sick.