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The Truant Teacher Problem

eye on the news

The Truant Teacher Problem

Collective bargaining agreements allow traditional public school teachers to “get sick” too often. October 3, 2017
Education

It’s hardly a secret that many teachers take advantage of the allowable sick days that are part of a typical union collective bargaining agreement (CBA). All teachers use sick days legitimately at some point, but many (including yours truly, on occasion) have been known to call in sick when perfectly healthy. My middle school was typical, where teachers invariably got “sick” much more often on Mondays and Fridays. And some would come down with a bad case of the flu at strategic times—like the three days before the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, giving them a ten-day vacation with pay.

But now, using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, a Fordham Institute study released in September demonstrates the full extent of the absentee problem. On average, teachers miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave, while the average U.S. worker takes only about three and a half sick days per annum. Worse, the study shows that 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are chronically absent—defined as missing more than 10 days of school per year because of illness or personal reasons. In charter schools—most of which are not unionized—the corresponding rate is just 10.3 percent. But even within the charter sector, the study reveals a glaring disparity: teachers in unionized charters are almost twice as likely to be chronically absent as their colleagues in non-unionized charters—17.9 percent to 9.1 percent.

More important, the study’s author, David Griffith, suggests a direct link between teacher attendance and student achievement. He writes, “There are roughly 100,000 public schools in the United States, with over 3 million public school teachers and at least 50 million students. So every year, at least 800,000 teachers in the U.S. are chronically absent, meaning they miss about 9 million days of school between them, resulting in roughly 1 billion instances in which a kid comes to class to find that his or her time is, more often than not, being wasted.”

Of course, when the regular teacher calls in sick, the schools arrange for a substitute. Some subs are excellent, but they’re in high demand, and the chances are slim that one of them will get assigned to your child’s classroom. All too often, a sub can’t be found or doesn’t show up. If they do make it to the classroom, they often can’t control the class, or they have their own agenda for the day.

This study is yet another in a growing list that shows CBAs are harmful to students. In 2015, researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen found that laws requiring school districts to engage in the collective bargaining process with teachers’ unions lead students to be less successful in life. In 2009, Stanford researcher Caroline Hoxby detailed in practical terms how CBAs stifle flexibility in determining the best slot for a teacher at a given school and deny the opportunity to get rid of underperformers—rigidity being the hallmark of labor contracts. In 2007, Stanford researcher Terry Moe found that CBAs appear to have a strongly negative impact in larger school districts, but seem to have no effect in smaller ones, except possibly “for African-American students—which is important indeed if true.” 

Some observers have disputed the impact that CBAs have on chronic teacher absences. National Council on Teacher Quality president Kate Walsh claims that school culture explains the disparity. She points to discrepancies in teacher-absence rates between cities. For example, more than 30 percent of traditional public school teachers miss more than 10 days in unionized Chicago, while in San Francisco, also unionized, only 10 percent hit that mark. Walsh claims, “The difference is there’s a cultural expectation you show up.” School culture may have the power to trump CBAs, but the much more common phenomenon is that CBAs set the culture of the schools.

Not surprisingly, union leaders are damning the report and its origins. Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, questions the findings because of Fordham’s support of charter schools, reminding us to “Consider the source.” Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators suggests that “Fordham is a biased organization that is driven by an anti-student agenda with anti-public education funders.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten groused, “The reality is that charter schools need better (teacher) leave policies, not worse ones, a fact ignored by Fordham.” She then pooh-poohed the data, suggesting that the study should have examined the “root causes” of absenteeism. “Teachers, most of whom are women, face unique stressors, including caring for families and working beyond the school day,” she said, though she did not address the fact that women who teach in charters seem to manage their “unique stressors” considerably better than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

When kids are absent too much, their parents can expect a knock on the door from a truant officer, or, as they are now euphemistically called, “Pupil Services and Attendance Counselors.” The government worker will try to find out why the child is not in school. But when teachers have excessive absences, parents and kids can’t go knocking on their door. Teachers still receive full pay and benefits for the days that they miss. Unlike parents and children, teachers have a CBA to fall back on.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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