"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Monday, December 20, 2010

Teacher Absences

There's a new central office administrator in the school system from which I retired last June. One of his "pet" concerns is teacher absences.

The administrator, Mr. H, is trying to limit the number of days off teachers take. This makes sense from a fiscal point of view since when teachers are absent they get paid anyway and use a benefit day, and a substitute must also be paid.

The problem comes with Mr. H's attitude. According to some teachers, he acts condescending and overbearing. This may or may not be true, depending on one's point of view, however, the issue of teacher absences is indicative of other problems.

In his blog Reality Check, Walt Gardner wrote about teacher absenteeism in Central Falls Rhode Island. His comments are specific to the Rhode Island school district, but he makes some points which can be generalized to other schools and school systems. Mr. H, if you're reading this (which I doubt), pay attention. Perhaps you can figure out why teacher absences are a problem in our school district.
Nationwide, 5.3 percent of teachers are absent from the classroom on any given day, according to a 2008 study by the Center for American Progress. In New York City, one-fifth of teachers were absent for more than two weeks in the previous school year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Absenteeism was highest in schools serving the most disadvantaged students. In impoverished Brownsville, for example, 24.4 percent of teachers were out more than the 10 sick days allowed, compared with 13.2 percent in the posh Upper East Side.
Research shows that teachers who teach in high poverty schools are absent more. This makes sense, since there is generally more stress in those schools. The stress can come from a variety of areas, btw...students, administration, parents, and most of all, government threats of punishments for lack of "adequate yearly progress."

In our system, though, this does not seem to be a consistent pattern. Schools with high poverty rates do not seem to have more teacher absences than schools with fewer students living in poverty.

There is another issue, though, which I think relates specifically to our school system.
...It's here that it's instructive to look at San Diego.

From 1998 to 2005, teachers were subjected to an aggressive reform campaign without their input that was unprecedented in educational history. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010), Diane Ravitch devotes an entire chapter to what transpired. A wave of depression and anxiety swept teachers, forcing them to seek medical attention at the local Kaiser Permanente clinic. Once a new superintendent who embarked on a more collaborative strategy took over, clinic visits dropped precipitously.

The lessons from San Diego become even more relevant because in the 1990s, its schools were widely considered one of the best for an urban district. But despite San Diego's reputation, it didn't take long for Alan Bersin, a former federal prosecutor, to destroy morale as city superintendent. He rejected research that emphasized the importance of involving teachers in change, believing that what he was doing was in the best interests of students.

A similar rationale is heard at Central Falls High School. But when control supersedes consensus, it invariably results in severe teacher stress. In San Diego, Ravitch says that many teachers complained of "a climate of fear and suspicion," and of being "exhausted, stressed out, and in some cases, fearful of losing their jobs if they do not perform under this new program."
The low morale...the climate of "fear and suspicion" pervades our school district. Here are a few reasons. I'm sure current teachers in the system could add more...
  • The superintendent presented, and the school board approved, a plan to save millions of dollars for the school system. The plan would close 6 elementary schools, and move the students to centralized locations in and around high schools. A referendum to increase income from the community was soundly defeated during the last election. Teachers in the closing schools are uniformed about timelines for closing...about where they will be teaching...about cuts that need to be made...
  • During the last round of contract negotiations, the school board's team would not negotiate. They came to each meeting with a "this is what we want" attitude. There was no give and take and no discussion. The presentations from the school board's team did not respond to teachers proposals. It was not negotiations...it was not discussion. At the last minute, the school board agreed to language about parent teacher conferences, while teachers accepted a large increase in insurance premiums (a 500% increase gradually introduced over the next few years), a zero percent pay increase, and a retirement incentive package (which I took).
  • Elementary teachers have been given a curriculum developed with teacher input (a committee of classroom teachers) which takes much of the day to day decision making away from individual teachers. Much of the rest of the country has experienced this, but it's new in our school system. Teachers are now facilitators of the new curriculum. Each school has an instructional coach. The curriculum was given to the teachers with a minimal amount of training. What training there was, at least at the beginning, was scheduled to take place during the teachers' preparation time which meant less time to prepare lessons and materials.
Low morale leads to high turnover...high absentee rate...

There is little local control in elementary schools. Decisions from the central office are dumped on the principals who deliver it to teachers. The teachers are obliged to follow through. Directives come from above. There's little room for decision making at the building level. Complaints made to the principals might be listened to...but nothing can be done to change things at the local level.

Scripted curriculum + reliance on "data" (using DIBELS at the elementary level) from standardized tests + lack of opportunity for teacher individualism or creativity + loss of buildings to closings and the fear of job loss due to cutbacks = low morale = teacher absences.

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