By David Griffith
As I document in Fordham’s newest study, Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools, data from the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education show that 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools miss eleven or more days of school for illness or personal reasons. In contrast, the corresponding figure for teachers in charter schools is 10.3 percent.
While OCR describes these teachers as “frequently” absent, the report uses the term “chronically” absent, consistent with much of the initial coverage of these data. But regardless of your preferred adverb, research shows that teacher absenteeism matters: Specifically, a ten-day increase in teacher absenteeism is associated with the loss of about six to ten days of learning in English language arts and about fifteen to twenty-five days of learning in math. In other words, kids learn almost nothing—and possibly less than nothing—when their teacher of record isn’t there.
To put those numbers in perspective, imagine a hypothetical high school with 1,000 students and fifty full-time teachers. Based on the national average, we would expect about thirteen of those teachers to be chronically absent each year, meaning that between them they would miss at least 143 days of school. And on each of those days, each of those teachers would likely have taught about four to five classes with a total of perhaps 100 kids in them. So over the course of a single year at our hypothetical school, we would expect there to be at least 14,300 instances in which a student went to class but his or her teacher did not. (And that’s ignoring the impact of whatever absences were accumulated by the thirty-seven teachers who weren’t chronically absent.)
Now for the really eye-opening math: 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 (or if you prefer, about a billion hours of wasted class time, since students in the early grades don’t have “periods”).
Again, that number only reflects the impact of chronically absent teachers. When all teacher absences are included, the number of wasted periods is more like 2.5 billion. Even Will Shortz might blanch at the prospect of that many crossword puzzles. But, of course, the sheer scale of the problem also means that even a partial solution would yield enormous benefits for students.
So what can we do? More specifically, how can we encourage better attendance without making teaching—which is necessarily a bit exhausting when done right—unreasonably demanding?
In my view, policymakers should take at least five steps:
1. Don’t force charter schools to abide by district collective bargaining agreements.
As the report documents, the teacher chronic absenteeism gap is particularly striking in the fourteen states where districts—but not charters—are required to bargain collectively. And nationally teachers in charters that are legally bound to their local collective bargaining agreement (CBA) are about twice as likely to be chronically absent as those in other charters. So moving forward, the simplest way to improve teacher attendance is to just let charters be charters.
2. Reduce the number of paid sick and/or personal days teachers are guaranteed
Data from the National Council on Teacher Quality show that the average CBA entitles teachers to nearly thirteen days of paid sick and/or personal leave per 180-day school year (or the equivalent of sixteen days over the typical professional’s 225-day work year). Moreover, there is a clear link between the amount of paid leave teachers get and their odds of being chronically absent. So if we want to reduce those odds, we need to give teachers less paid leave.
Reasonable people may part ways over exactly how many sick and/or personal days teachers should get. But in my view, anything above ten days is unreasonable (and if I had my druthers, the actual number would be more like eight). To state what should be obvious but doesn’t seem to be: When it comes to attendance, we should probably hold teachers to a higher standard than we hold at-risk teens. And two weeks is a lot of time off, when it comes in addition to winter and spring break, summer vacation, and assorted public holidays.
3. Give teachers maternity leave and disability insurance instead of letting them “carry over” their unused sick days from one year to the next.
Currently, at least thirty states and the District of Columbia allow teachers to “carry over” their unused sick days over, often with no cap on the total number of days they can accumulate. And since most teachers are entitled to ten to fifteen sick days per year, those unused days can add up quickly. (For example, Washington limits teachers to 180 days of accumulated leave, raising the question of whether teachers really need so many days if they are going unused.)
Obviously, some teachers have perfectly legitimate reasons for missing extended time; yet the teachers for whom this need is most obvious are oddly ill-served by existing leave policies. For example, few teachers are entitled to maternity leave, so many are forced to save up their sick days for that purpose. And of course there is no guarantee that teachers who become seriously ill will be adequately protected by carry-over policies, especially if they are relatively new to teaching.
This is all kind of silly. After all, the case for providing bona fide maternity leave is overwhelming—not just for teachers, but for female employees in every occupation. And if the goal is to protect teachers from potential tragedy, then some sort of disability insurance is a better option. Instead of allowing teachers to accumulate an absurd number of sick days, we should provide generous but targeted relief to those who truly need it. And while we’re at it, we should allow teachers to “sell back” their unused sick days at the end of the year (rather than when they retire, as most states do) so they don’t have an incentive to use them before they disappear.
4. Hire a sub.
Even the most qualified and competent sub faces more challenges than a full-time teacher, so it’s hardly surprising that students don’t seem to learn much when their regular teacher is absent. Yet this is only part of the story: Amazingly, research suggests that less than half of short-term absences are covered by a substitute, even when administrators are notified of the absence well in advance. Consequently, at least some of the negative effects of teacher absenteeism may be attributable to negative “spillover” in other classrooms. In particular, when no short-term sub is available, other full-time teachers may be asked to provide cover, often during their only planning period of the day.
To see why this matters, imagine a school day with five periods: If no sub is hired, as many as four teachers could theoretically lose their planning periods because of one teacher’s absence. And since each of those teachers has multiple classes, in addition to the five classes that are directly affected by that teacher’s absence, another dozen or so could be indirectly affected. As this hypothetical makes clear, hiring a sub makes a lot of sense (even if it marginally increases the risk of moral hazard for teachers contemplating a mental health day).
5. Include teacher chronic absenteeism as a non-academic indicator of school quality.
Despite some encouraging progress on other fronts, there is one big disappointment when it comes to states’ recent and forthcoming ESSA plans—namely, the uninspiring array of “non-academic” indicators of school quality that states have adopted. Of the seventeen states that submitted their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education last May, for example, fifteen said they plan to use student chronic absenteeism and/or attendance as an indicator of school quality, and a number are using it as their only “nonacademic” indicator. (As the reader may know, the rest of these plans are being submitted right now, but so far the patterns look pretty similar.)
To be fair, student attendance was one of several “school quality” indicators that Mike Petrilli and I included on our list of recommended indicators last fall. And to be clear, it’s certainly worth trying, given the strong relationship between student absenteeism and various outcomes of interest.
Still, it’s worth noting that there are at least two potential problems with using student attendance and/or chronic absenteeism as an indicator: First, it’s highly correlated with student demographics, so if states fail to control for these (and there’s little indication that they plan to), it will be biased against poor schools. And, second, it creates an unfortunate incentive for principals and teachers to fudge the numbers (though the extent to which they will actually do so remains to be seen).
In contrast, the OCR data show that teacher chronic absenteeism is weakly correlated with student demographics, and the paper trails it leaves are likely to be thicker than those associated with student absenteeism (making any funny-business easier to detect). In other words, when it comes to rating schools, there are compelling reasons to prefer teacher chronic absenteeism to student chronic absenteeism. Yet despite this fact only one of the seventeen states that submitted their ESSA plans in May mentions teacher absenteeism.
I wonder why.
For those in the charter movement who have viewed chartering as a systemic reform strategy (not just an escape hatch for some kids), the prevalent theory of action for the last ten to fifteen years has been a “tipping point” strategy. The idea was to concentrate growth in targeted cities until districts either responded to competition or were entirely replaced by charters.
Looked good on paper. Sadly, though, things are not going as expected. Here’s why:
First, as charters hit significant market share, political opposition grows exponentially. School boards and superintendents are faced with a situation where they lose enrollment so quickly that the only thing they can do is close schools, lay off teachers according to seniority not quality (thanks to “last in, first out” requirements), increase class sizes, and slash their central office staffing and support levels. In some cities, districts also face an increasing concentration of the students hardest and most costly to educate, those with severe special needs, those who speak little to no English, those with the most severe behavior and mental health challenges and the least parental support. This combination of factors often triggers a slow death spiral that paralyzes politically bound superintendents and boards and ultimately harms students.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education has a new report out this week that makes clear that the financial challenges facing such districts arise from irresponsible labor contracts, failure to reduce semi-fixed costs in response to enrollment loss, and rigid and unsustainable pension and health care commitments. Still, as we say in the report, while this situation is not charters’ fault, it is in part their problem. In the eyes of the public, charter schools are causing harm to district kids. And any attempt to close under-performing or under-enrolled district schools means quick ousters for reform-oriented superintendents and board members.
Second, we’re seeing that in most cities, demand for charters slows significantly at around 40–50 percent market share. About half of all families prefer district-run neighborhood schools for a variety of reasons.
Third, the supply of high-quality charters has not kept pace with the need, especially in tough labor markets and in Midwestern and rural states. In these areas, districts are sometimes better positioned—knowledge-wise, resource-wise, staff-wise—to provide high-quality and innovative public schools.
For all these reasons, and despite my own affection for the idea of all-charter systems, the charter community in most cities is failing to achieve the goals assumed by the tipping point strategy. If the typical urban district were a soda machine, it has been wobbling back and forth for several years and threatens to fall back on the reformers who are trying to push it over.
Consider the lessons from Oakland, a once reform “hot spot” but where charter growth has slowed to a trickle. When we talk to school providers there, they say they can still get charters authorized but the politics of district finance, combined with the saturation effect of having so many charter operators fighting over the same buildings, kids, and talent, are forcing them to look to other communities. Meanwhile, kids are paying the price for the district’s inaction.
So I’m not okay with the argument or attitude that reformers should either replace all of the traditional public schools with charter schools or just “let districts be districts,” as Mike Petrilli recently argued.
I do not contend that districts need to turn all of their schools into charters in order to improve and compete. Some small, largely homogeneous districts can be very effective at centralizing and acting like big, successful CMOs, with a coherent, thoughtful approach to instruction, curriculum, and all the rest. But for large, dysfunctional urban districts with political boards and dismal performance, especially those now actively losing enrollment and facing the downward spiral described above, there is rarely a viable path for improvement and competition with charters that does not involve a partial or complete restructuring of what really is a failed delivery model.
In order to innovate, districts need to attract and retain entrepreneurial teachers and leaders. There is no amount of top-down directive that can inspire the zeal and commitment that it takes to serve the most challenging students. You can’t have high-performing, mission-driven schools without placing the locus of control and accountability at the school level. For these reasons, many districts should consider decentralizing all or part of their system, although this needs to be done strategically and only when schools can demonstrate that they have effective models.
That is the lesson we can learn from D.C. and New York City district reforms under the early years of Joel Klein’s reign. It’s possible to make centralization work under the right conditions, but not for the toughest schools and not in a sustainable way.
CRPE’s many years of work on the Portfolio Strategy make these arguments and more. We have also been developing tools and research-based resources to help the growing number of districts that want to move decision-making to the school level, a challenge that has serious implications for what tomorrow’s central office will look like and do. This month, David Osborne, whose seminal 1992 book, Reinventing Government, inspired our center’s founding, has released a new book that makes our case with stories and examples.
Some charter advocates cannot abide the idea of working with districts. Pessimistic that districts can be trusted to respect school-level autonomy, they prefer to keep charters outside the district sphere altogether. That’s a fine strategy if the goal is to help a limited number of students escape a failed system, but it doesn’t hold as an overall reform strategy. When districts create charter-like schools such as those underway in Indianapolis and Springfield, MA, the strategy can help a district right itself financially while still expanding the number of high quality schools.
We can argue all day about the right path forward for districts, but we ignore the problem at our peril. Figuring out how to help districts thrive in a high-choice environment is one of the toughest challenges out there. And figuring out what to do if they don’t thrive but still persist is even harder.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
In an essay in the new issue of The Atlantic, titled “Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake,” Erika Christakis frets over the “dystopian narrative” that she says dominates conversations about public schools, which she insists are “nothing close to the cesspools portrayed by political hyperbole.” Her complaint refers not only to the disdain for public education expressed by President Trump and education secretary Betsy DeVos. But, she notes, “Their words and proposals have brought to a boil something that’s been simmering for a while—the denigration of our public schools, and a growing neglect of their role as an incubator of citizens.”
Christakis is a well-regarded expert on early childhood education and the author, most recently, of The Importance of Being Little (2015), which pushed back aggressively against the vision of preschool as preparation for academics, and in favor of discovery learning and play. It may, however, be her fate to be best remembered for the email she wrote two years ago while a guest lecturer at Yale, wherein she challenged students to decide for themselves what Halloween costumes to wear over the advice of college administrators who were warning them against “cultural appropriation”—donning costumes like feathered headdresses or turbans. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious,” she wrote, “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
There was no room, at least not at Yale, either for her sensible advice or her services. Her email triggered wild, emotional overreactions from the students with whom she empathized; she quietly left the university within the year. In short, if anyone has earned the right to sound alarms over the collapse of civil discourse, it’s Erika Christakis.
We have come to see schooling “less as a public good, like a strong military or a noncorrupt judiciary, than as a private consumable,” she writes in The Atlantic, and here Christakis is unimpeachably correct. I have made the same argument myself many times over the years. She continues:
“I am more concerned with how the current discussion has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous.”
Well, no. It seems to me demonstrably false (others can debate whether it’s dangerous) to suggest that traditional public schools have special powers to advance and defend civic virtue. The proof point is our current debased and divisive national discourse, which is conducted daily with rising intemperance by American adults, nearly all whom attended the traditional public schools that Christakis, in my view, sentimentalizes. If civic virtue and a shared commitment to the common good are primary objects of schooling—and I agree that they should be—a strong case can be made that school choice helps, not hinders that mission. Christakis is nostalgic for a time that never was. A growing body of evidence suggests that private schools generally, and Catholic schools in particular, are often better at promoting civic participation and political tolerance than public schools.
“Hyper-individualism isn't only a problem in education. It’s also a problem of American culture, broadly speaking, and one which Alexis deTocqueville highlighted in the 1830s,” observes Ashley Berner, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University and the deputy director of its Institute for Education Policy. Berner’s recent book, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (2017) detailed several “mistaken beliefs” about American education, the first of which is “that only state schools can create good citizens.” The evidence mustered by Berner suggests this is simply not so.
The question Christakis’s piece raises—how to structure education such that it pushes toward the common good—is an excellent one. But the answer doesn't seem to be a uniform-school system, delivered exclusively by the State. “Domestic and international research suggest,” notes Berner, “that schools with positive, distinctive cultures, whether religious, philosophical, or pedagogical, have a greater chance of cultivating civic behaviors and sensibilities.” Indeed, America is an outlier in conflating “public education” with uniform, government-operated schools. In most democracies “public education” simply means that government funds and regulates, but does not necessarily operate, a wide variety of schools.
Christakis’s essay more successfully faults the reductive view of education and disregard for the civic function of schools that are all too evident in the writings and utterances of most of us in education reform. “Surely it’s reasonable to ask whether some of America’s success might derive not from factors measured by standardized tests, but from other attributes of our educational system,” she writes. “U.S. public schools, at their best, have encouraged a unique mixing of diverse people, and produced an exceptionally innovative and industrious citizenry.”
My reform credentials are, I hope, in good order, but I share Christakis’s concern, tacitly expressed here. A blind spot in our technocratic impulse to improve outcomes (read: boost test scores) is that we forget that schools are also civic institutions where children go to become Americans. But it is simply not true—and it never has been true—that district-operated schools are indispensible vehicles for inducting children into civil society.
What we should want for our children is for them to develop an emotional stake and a sense of attachment to civil society because they sense that society is invested in them. The number of institutions that potentially forge links in this chain—public, private, and personal—is vast, spanning families, churches, scout troops, Little League, police departments, the armed services, and countless others. Schools are an important link, possibly the dominant one, in this chain. But under whose roof children go to school matters less than what occurs inside. If the education we provide to our children does not increase their store of civic-mindedness and fellow feeling, if it does not leave them with a deep attachment to this country and its ideals, it will not mean that they didn’t attend public school. It will mean that they got a lousy education.
On this week's podcast, special guest Derrell Bradford, the executive vice president of 50CAN, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss Fordham’s new report on teacher absenteeism. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines what happened to student outcomes when desegregation orders came to an end in the 1990s.
Amber’s Research Minute
David D. Liebowitz, “Ending to What End? The Impact of the Termination of Court-Desegregation Orders on Residential Segregation and School Dropout Rates,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (August 2017).
Dual credit courses continue to gain in popularity. After all, why wouldn’t students want to earn free college credit while still in high school? But do these courses pay dividends several years later? A new study in Educational Researcher examines whether students who took dual credit classes were more likely to get a college degree and whether differences existed based on the selectivity of the institution they attended.
Researchers from the University of Illinois examined data from the Illinois high school class of 2003. Specifically, they analyzed the impact of dual credit participation on postsecondary completion within seven years of graduating from high school. They were ultimately able to match nearly 9,000 dual-credit participants to an equal number of nonparticipants within the same high school and with a similar student profile, so as to control for various school and student-level variables. This analytic technique, known as “nearest neighbor propensity score matching,” means that students are matched at the baseline on variables such as demographics, family income, ACT scores, and high school GPA, among others. In addition, dual enrollment and non-dual-enrollment students are matched only from those who enrolled in postsecondary education. Barron’s college ratings are used to bucket institutions according to selectivity.
In short, analysts found that degree completion results overall were significantly better for students participating in dual credit compared to their matched peers who did not participate. This was true for both attaining any type of degree and for attaining a bachelor’s degree. The positive impact was greatest for students starting at a community college and less competitive colleges. Specifically, dual-credit community college students were significantly more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than their non-dual enrollment matched peers (28 percent attainment rate compared to 19 percent attainment rate). While it is true that these are low rates overall, it is nonetheless a notable difference since all of these students must transfer elsewhere for a baccalaureate degree since they are not granted at community colleges in Illinois. Results for somewhat more selective colleges showed differences as well but were viewed as less reliable since they did not pass additional tests for rigor. There were no significant differences for those students starting at very competitive institutions, but again analysts viewed those results with caution.
To summarize, the evidence suggests that the greatest boost to degree attainment relative to dual-credit participation occurs for students who start in community colleges rather than more selective colleges. What’s more, these benefits materialize even for students who take just one dual credit course. In Illinois, 40 percent of post-secondary enrollments occur in community colleges. So dual enrollment courses could make a real difference in terms of helping students get a college degree (not to mention helping offset the cost of college).
Not to throw a wet blanket, but is anyone in the Land of Lincoln also tending to quality control? As in, are dual enrollment courses sufficiently rigorous and taught by qualified instructors? That’s a question worth asking. The answer might help Illinois make its program even more effective.
SOURCE: Bob Blankenberger et al., “Dual Credit, College Type, and Enhanced Degree Attainment,” Educational Researcher (July 2017).
Last week was an important one for new D.C. Public Schools chancellor Antwan Wilson. The American Institutes for Research published a new report on DCPS’s progress since 2013, and the district released its new strategic plan. While the city’s charter sector has increasingly become a national model, DCPS wants to show that its latest efforts to improve have, too, been fruitful. The top-level findings of the AIR report provide the district with plenty of fodder for positive press releases, but a closer look reveals continued disappointments for D.C.’s neediest students.
First, the good news. Between 2003 and 2015, Average fourth grade NAEP scale scores rose twenty-six and twenty-seven points in English language arts and math, respectively, narrowing the gap with other large urban district schools. Eighth grade NAEP scores also improved, but did not narrow gaps compared to other urban districts. Black and Hispanic students made impressive gains on the PARCC assessment, new to D.C. in 2015, in just two years. Black students improved proficiency levels by as much as 7 percentage points in middle school ELA, while Hispanic students saw impressive results including, a large 10-percentage-point proficiency gain in elementary math. Additionally, overall graduation rates jumped 13 percentage points to 69 percent, with black students seeing an even higher bump of 19 percentage points.
Non-academic indicators also saw some improvements between 2013 and 2017. Attendance levels rose, particularly in middle and high school, though gains have slowed recently. Black students in particular increased attendance in high school, improving by an average of 7 percentage points. Minority students have also reported increased satisfaction with their schools. Eighty-one percent of black students and 89 percent of Hispanic students are now satisfied with their schools, compared with 74 percent and 84 percent respectively in 2013.
Despite all of these gains, however, DCPS has one persistent problem: inequality. The gaps between white and minority students in all measures are enormous and, in some cases, growing. Currently, the smallest achievement gap is between Hispanic and white high school students in math (the weakest performance area overall) at 41 percentage points. Despite being the smallest gap, this achievement gap grew the most between 2015 and 2017 (12 percentage points) with large gains for white students, but anemic growth for Hispanic students. The gap between white and black students also grew by 11 percentage points in this category.
Moving forward DCPS faces immense challenges, despite recent gains, if it truly wants to provide equity and excellence for District students. As the 2017 school year begins, targeting the achievement of minority students needs to be the focus on district officials at all levels.
SOURCES: Drew Atchison, Ed.D. and Laura B. Stein, M.A., “Looking Back To Move Forward: Progress And Opportunity In District Of Columbia Public Schools,” American Institutes for Research (September 2017).