The Wall Street Journal has an article out today describing the problem of persistent absenteeism among some teachers in New York City’s public schools. According to the article:
One-fifth of New York City teachers missed work for more than two weeks last school year, with absenteeism most acute in some of the poorest districts, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
The reporter goes on to write that in Brownsville, 24.4% of teachers were absent more than ten days, while 22.1% of teachers more than exhausted their leave time in the South Bronx and 13.2% did so in the Upper East Side.
Most of us are familiar with what happens in classrooms when teachers are away. Too often students are given “busy work” assignments, shown films only tangentially related to academic content, or barraged with worksheets and crossword puzzles. The monetary and student achievement costs of teacher absenteeism are high, as both the journalist and CAP’s Raegan Miller aptly note:
The city spent $119 million on substitute teachers last year, and studies show that, particularly for poor children, teacher absences affect student progress.
“It’s one of those underbelly topics that no one focuses on, but contributes to the achievement gap,” said Raegen T. Miller, associate director for education research at Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. He pointed to research that has found that every 10 absences lowers math achievement by the same amount as having a teacher with one- to two-years experience instead of a teacher with three- to five-years experience.
If true, that’s startling!
But (and this is where I’m a softy): Isn’t missing ten days of work sometimes understandable? Even though teachers only instruct students for about 180 school days each year, the rigid school day schedule blocks their calendars from 8 AM to 4 PM, Monday through Friday, for ten months each year. Sure, teachers are free on holidays and for extended breaks twice a year, but those are dates when dentists’ offices are closed, children’s school plays aren’t happening, and sickness rarely sets in.
When it comes to schedules, planning, and time, teaching is a demanding, inflexible job. The way teachers and schools use time has been studied thoroughly by my colleague Elena Silva, who has an outstanding piece on the topic in Educational Leadership this month. Her message: Improving the school calendar can improve teacher quality and make teaching a more attractive profession.
Until school schedules are redesigned for the 21st century, policymakers and school system administrators must search for creative ways to ensure that our nation’s poorest students continue to learn while their teachers are out of school. These could include:
- Encouraging newly retired teachers to serve as substitute teachers for a few years so that they can continue academic instruction while classroom teachers are absent.
- Requiring teachers to design lesson plans at the beginning of the year that review basic grade-appropriate material and can be carried out by any substitute teacher.
- Building virtual learning labs that allow students to review new or old topics and complete assessments while their teachers are away.
Continuing with the status quo in policies related to teacher absences and school time is simply too costly—for our budgets and for our students.