The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a Washington DC based advocacy group that works the reformy side of the street. They worked hard to sell the Common Core, and they operate charter schools in Ohio while pushing hard to sell pro-charter policy across the country. They are well-connected; I can only assume that there is some federal law that requires all journalists writing a piece about education to get a quote from Fordham head Mike Petrilli.
I've crossed words with Petrilli many times (in fact, he was the first blog subject to clap back at me). He seems smart and sharp, and most reminds me of that kid in class who likes to debate and really doesn't care what side he's on. I think Fordham has some scruples; I don't think they'd try to promote bludgeoning baby seals no matter how much they were paid. They don't come across as idelogues. But at the end of the day, they strike me as a PR/lobbying firm dressed up as a thinky tank and ready to do the job they were hired to do.
All of which is the baggage I carry with me as I read about their newest research-ish hatchet job on public school teachers.
Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools comes with a headline that writes itself (and has been doing so all day)-- public school teachers miss way more school than charter school teachers. Or as Fox News put it in, " Another reason to love charters: Their teachers actually show up for work."
The whole report really boils down to this chart:
State by state, the numbers are clear and appear damning, and Fordham is too slick and smart to hammer the point home, as in moments like this from the intro:
But compared to their counterparts in other industries and other countries, U.S. teachers seem to have poor attendance. On average, they miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave (in addition to the breaks they get for school vacations and national holidays); meanwhile, the average US worker takes about three-and-a-half sick days a year.
Can a research paper press release be passive-aggressive?
My first response this morning upon seeing this covered in EdWeek was to call it cynical bullshit, and I'll stand by that initial reaction. Not because of the data. It is what it is, with the public school figures drawn from the Office of Civil Rights, which supposedly corrects for things like maternity leave and professional days.
No, I'm going to stick with "cynical bullshit" because what the report, and the pitching of it, lacks is anything that looks like a sincere attempt to figure out what's going on here. Instead, the whole process smacks much more of someone setting out a rack of clubs next to a bunch of baby seals. "We're not saying you have to club the baby seals, but if you're so inclined, there are the seals and here are some clubs. Just sayin'"
So the bullet points from this report are immediately recognizable as ammunition for some old arguments:
* Public school teachers miss more school than charter school teachers.
* Unionized teachers miss more school than noon-unionized teachers.
* Some states sure do give teachers a lot of sick days.
* Schools with a better culture have fewer teacher absences.
And just for some context, donchaknow
* When a teacher misses more than ten days, students in her class test lower
* People in other jobs don't get so many sick days, or summers off, either.
Look. Facts are facts. And just so you know where I am personally on the whole business of using sick days, I'm the guy who, after almost forty years of teaching, has accumulated enough sick days that I could be sick for two entire years. Not only that, but by the terms of our contract, when I retire, the district will reward me for all those unused sick days with a bonus of $0.00. I don't take sick days unless I absolutely have to, and I'm not a fan of teachers who stay home every time they sniffle.
But this report raises a ton of questions, and it isn't interested in any of them as long as it can point out that those lazy union public school teachers sure take a lot of time off, you know? I'm just sayin'.
Pieces of this are bogus. The old research that finds a correlation between lower test scores and teacher days missed finds just that-- a correlation. Which means that it could be proof that teachers who have low-functioning classes that do poorly on tests are more likely to want a break.
And just in case you wonder whether Fordham is using the data to build a springboard for jumping to conclusions, here's one piece of the executive summary-- emphasis is mine:
Though we cannot prove it, it’s impossible not to sense that the high chronic absenteeism rates for traditional public school teachers are linked to the generous leave policies and myriad job protections that are enshrined in state law and local collective bargaining agreements. Because they can’t easily be fired, district teachers can use all their sick and personal days (and get paid for it) without worrying about what their principal or department head will think.
Yeah, it's actually entirely possible not to sense that if you didn't arrive with a bagful of anti-union, anti-public ed bias. This leads to some "policy-makers should really keep this in mind when negotiating contracts and writing laws" but the real point here is, "Union protection makes teachers cocky and forget their place. Somebody should straighten them out. I'm just sayin'."
And while I find the gap between public and charter teachers interesting, I can think of plenty of variables I'd love to see explored. Age, for instance-- charter teachers are almost always younger, so I'm wondering what the correlation between taking sick days and age might be. And I'm wondering about state to state comparisons-- Arkansas's charter teachers take fewer sick days than their public school teacher counterparts in Arkansas, but more sick days that public school teachers in over half of all other states. What's wrong with Arkansas? Were cyber-charters factored in? Because how do we measure teacher attendance for those? And while the report acknowledges that crappy working conditions may exacerbate absenteeism, they don't really address the well-known high-pressure 80-hour-week nature of many charters and how that fits in this big picture.
And how do employment patterns factor into this. Is charter absenteeism
affected by the number of charter teachers who are regularly invited to
be absent forever? And how is it we are avoiding the obvious conclusion here, which is that when you tell people they can't have sick days or they're fired, they tend to take fewer sick days. Perhaps we're avoiding that line of thought because then we'd be talking about the crappy working conditions of charter schools instead of lazy-ass public school teachers.
What about the policy discussions about sick days for teachers-- do communities have a vested interest in saying, "Sick teachers, please stay home and don't infect my kids."
And the other important policy discussion that we never have when discussing how cushy a teaching job is-- why do we think that teachers should have it as badly as others instead of arguing that others should have it as good as teachers? Yes, teachers get 12 days of sick leave on average-- why doesn't everyone else get the same?
Of course, nobody is asking these questions. EdWeek at least got quotes from Lily ("using corrupted assertions to draw misguided conclusions") and Randi ("The reality is that charter schools need better leave policies, not worse ones". But EdWeek also gave a ton oof space to Kate Freakin' Walsh of NCTQ, and while for all I know Walsh is a lovely person who's nice to her mother, NCTQ is the shoddiest generator of headline-ready faux research in the biz; NCTQ's presence in an article is a clear sign that the article is not taking a serious look at the issues.
Meanwhile, various charter organizations and Fox news are jumping on the headline because lazy-ass union teachers, amiright? We could dig a little deeper, make sure we're really understanding what's really happening, but you know, the clubs are here and the baby seals are here. Just sayin'. I'm not going to defend excessive teacher absence, but if we're going to talk about it, let's really talk about it and not just mine the issue for a handy tool for bashing unionized public school teachers.