Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That Teacher Absenteeism Report

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.

Just sayin'

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.


  1. A few things to add -
    1. Teachers cannot work while sick the way other professions can. For example, many people work from home when they are sick. Some power through hiding in their office. A teacher with a stomach bug cannot power through with 25 sets of eyes on them and only one maybe two bathroom breaks. In addition, maternity leave is often not a true maternity leave. Usually, the pregnant woman has to use her sick days and family leave to get time off. In my district, we are allowed to use twenty days before our due date and twenty days after we give birth. Then we stop getting paid. We lose our benefits once we go through family leave. So maybe many of this data is including maternity leave since they are registered as sick days. It might be that women are more comfortable being pregnant and staying teachers in a unionized, traditional school district than in a non-union district or in a charter school.

  2. Regarding your last line, Peter, if I may, this article bashes all of the teachers that work in public schools, not just unionized ones. As I've pointed out, those of us in so-called "right to work" states like NC and SC have to continually listen to how "the unions" protect our jobs while we look around for non-existent local contracts and collective bargaining. (Which for the record, I wished we had down here). That being said, I definitely believe that there's a lot that isn't being reported, especially regarding age. I'd love the data for the average age of charter teachers and public school ones. That, plus the sheer numbers of us compared to charter teachers...yeah, the devil is in the details.

  3. Like you, I was truly aggravated after reading the article in my local paper about teachers "abusing" sick leave. I have just begun my 36th year of teaching. I have enough sick days to take an entire year off. Factor in two maternity leaves and the fact that I can no longer accumulate days due to new language in our contract and it is obvious that I don't abuse my sick time. People need to realize that teachers get sick more often because of the population we work with daily. Elementary students cough, sneeze and put their fingers in unspeakable places and then touch papers that we grade! I also agree with the previous comment. A teacher is "ON" every minute of the day! Teaching is exhausting when you feel great, it is impossible when you feel lousy. That is why teachers stay home. I would love to have Mr. Petrilli spend a week teaching third grade and see how healthy he feels on Friday!

  4. Unlike most professions, we cannot just take off for an hour or two to go to the doctor or dentist; we must use half or full days of sick leave unless our school day ends early enough to make a more convenient appointment. Also, our constant, close contact with children gives us a higher than average exposure to communicable diseases. Even doctors and nurses have greater access to hand washing than a typical American teacher does. Comparing teaching with other professions isn’t quite fair.

  5. I'm beginning to come to the uncharitable conclusion that many of these articles that Fordham publishes are to give Petrilli yet another opportunity to be on TV promoting Fordham's anti-public-school agenda. This piece is one of their shoddiest yet, but that doesn't stop the MSM, let alone the rabidly anti-union folks on the Far Right, from salivating all over it. :-(

    I've personally invited Petrilli to visit my neighborhood school since both my kids still went to it (they've moved on to middle & high school now); it's a 20-minute drive from his house, in the same school system his kid attends (the Public-Private school Petrilli wrote he was so proud to be a parent of all those years ago in one of his more nauseating pieces), but - well, you know....crickets.

    And sadly, we can't "vote out" Fordham. *sigh*

  6. I was told by a former charter teacher that she was urged to come in & teach when she had a fever of 102 degrees- w/ the unspoken threat that she might lose her job if not, no matter the risk to kids. Unsurprisingly, she left the next year to teach at a public school. I'd also like Fordham to compare teacher attrition rates -- which are far higher in charter schools.

  7. Now in Pennsylvania some in the legislature want to take sick days out of the PA School Code and make teachers have to negotiate for them.

  8. People in general should be taking more days off work. Work to live, don't live to work. Who wants to live in a society where people work all of the time?

  9. To add to possible causes: I think part of it might be the high proportion of working moms, too. The only other professions with as many working moms would be nursing (works fewer days per week, could probably easily switch to nights in many cases so other parent could tag-team) or being a maid (low-income job with no protections so you might get canned for taking days).

    Charters would not have NEARLY as many moms working for them. Other professions don't have that proportion of moms.

    Just throwing it out there as a possibility, since the only two years I've used all (or even half) my leave so far have been 1 -Maternity, as someone mentioned above, and 2- baby's first year of day care. Here's to hoping year two of day care will be healthier!

  10. Charter school teachers are about 5 or 6 six years younger on average. 32% of them are 30 or under. Only 18% for public school teachers. This could be very significant.

  11. Thanks for your thoughts!! Love this post!

  12. We need to talk about sick buildings. Those of us who work in substandard schools buildings get sicker, more frequently. Look at urban schools where deferred maintenance allows for mold, vermin (which spread viruses like hantavirus), leaky roofs, lack of heat and air conditioning, and exacerbates chronic conditions like asthma.

    At the school I taught in for the last 13 years before I retired, I was sick every winter for 6-8 weeks with a mystery respiratory infection, which antibiotics never cured. I worked through many, many days while sick. The building was built to last 30 years and was in its 40th. My students didn't get my best instruction on the days I worked through, nor did my own kids get my best attention at home. I calculate I lost some 40 days of sick leave, which would have been reimbursed to me at 40% - sickness caused by my working conditions.

    Christine Langhoff