THE WATCHDOGS: 1 in 4 CPS teachers missed 10 or more days a year

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: 1 in 4 CPS teachers missed 10 or more days a year

Some view private-school vouchers as a threat to public education. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times file photo

About one of every four Chicago Public Schools teachers missed more than 10 days of school a year, most them at schools serving kids in high-poverty, heavily minority parts of the city — students experts say are most affected by high teacher absenteeism.

That’s according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of data from the Illinois State Board of Education, which, for the first time, is keeping tabs on teacher absences, in addition to school days missed by students, as part of the yearly “school report cards” it issues each fall.

CPS teachers get 10 to 12 sick days a year, depending on years of service, plus three personal days. Any full-time teacher who used more than than 10 of those days or was out for a short-term disability such as maternity leave was counted.

Besides the impact extended teacher absences can have on students, replacing them with substitutes costs the cash-strapped city school system tens of millions of dollars a year.

The worst attendance for a high school was at Douglass Academy High School, a school that draws from the surrounding community in Austin, where only 17.6 percent of teachers missed no more than 10 school days in a year.

The worst attendance for lower-grade teachers, and second-worst among all CPS schools overall, was at Parker Elementary Community Academy in Englewood, where just 19.4 percent of teachers had no more than 10 absences.

Another 59 schools had more than half of their teachers calling in sick.

Just seven of the 61 Chicago schools with the highest teacher absenteeism — 50 percent or worse — didn’t serve a population where at least eight of every 10 children come from families living below the poverty level.

All but four of those schools serve populations where at least nine of every 10 kids are African American or Hispanic.

And at 26 of those schools, at least one in 10 children is homeless.

Statewide, a little under one in four teachers — 23.7 percent — missed more than 10 days of school, only slightly better than CPS’ average of 27.5.

The State Board of Education didn’t count classes that teachers missed while attending training, grade- or department-level planning or field trips as absences.

Its teacher absenteeism figures are a few years behind the rest of the school data it released Oct. 31. It took them from the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which looked at the 2013-14 school year.

The state agency included the data — the most recent available — because of the “critical importance of consistent teacher attendance to students’ educational outcomes,” spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.

Raegen Miller, a researcher who’s studied the links between teacher absence and student achievement, said Illinois also should consider adding teacher absenteeism to the metrics used for school accountability under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“One of the values about having the measure out there is that people will start asking questions,” said Miller, of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, who in 2012 published a research paper titled “Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement.”

“Teachers are the most important school-based influence on student achievement,” he said. “If that’s the case, we ought to pay lots of attention to their presence or absence from classrooms or schools. And we just don’t pay that much attention to it.”

He said the impact of teacher absences on students often depends on the class. In physics or high-level math classes, for instance, “It’s very difficult to find substitutes that know the material in such a way that they can keep the ball rolling.”

The data don’t differentiate between single-day emergencies and longer-term or planned absences — another factor to consider, Miller said. With the latter, “You have a better chance of having the most talented substitutes on the case and also building out the necessary plan and information so that instruction can sort of go on at the intended pace.”

And when resources are scarce — as is the case with Chicago’s schools — excess absences also mean setting aside money for substitute teachers that could be put to better use, he said.

CPS — which consistently relies on borrowing and one-time fixes in the face of its budget problems — spent $39.7 million on substitute teachers in the 2013-14 school year, records show, though CPS spokesman Michael Passman said that money also paid for substitutes to cover classes while teachers took part in professional development or in grade- or school-wide curriculum planning.

“There’s going to be some absences because of the nature of human beings needing them,” Miller said. “There are legitimate reasons to miss work. Sometimes, the employer themselves are responsible for the absences.

“If you have a leader in one school that’s able to rally the professional culture among the teachers in a way that another leader isn’t, you might be able to detect that in the absence patterns, irresponsive of the student poverty rate.”

Jackson Potter. | Sun-Times files

Jackson Potter. | Sun-Times files

Chicago Teachers Union official Jackson Potter said that CPS has created conditions in schools that take a toll on teachers, with many of the poorest schools bearing the brunt of budget cuts. The link between teacher absenteeism and poverty is “not surprising,” Potter said, given “the stress levels for both students and educators in a building where there’s high poverty.” At schools in wealthier areas, fund-raising can help ease things, Potter said, but not at schools in high-poverty areas.

“So what it ends up doing is it puts an increased burden on existing staff, which is increasingly bearing the brunt of the budget cuts of having to take on more paperwork, bigger class sizes, having less social emotional interventions available,” he said. “So people do get worn down. They do get sick.”

Days off on top of a long summer hiatus and regular winter and spring breaks are necessary, Potter said, because of the energy that teaching well requires.

“It wears you out,” he said. “You are on stage performing for six hours straight every day. You need to grab the attention of children. And they have to walk out of the room learning something. That’s a huge amount of pressure.”

Potter said another factor is that CPS banned the use of personal days off on training days. And a 2012 end to banking unused time — to be paid out at retirement — might have had an unintended consequence, he said, because that move “limited the need to use before you lose those [personal] days. So a lot of people are incentivized to to ‘use them before you lose them.’ ”

Passman said that, since 2014, CPS has “issued guidance to principals to help ensure teachers are a consistent and stable presence in the classroom. We know that our students are more likely to succeed when they have a committed teacher leading class on a daily basis.”

Principals can spell out guidelines in a school handbook and require written verification of sick days “if there is reasonable concern of sick day misuse.” They also can require advance requests for non-emergency leave to make sure a school is properly staffed. Violators can be subject to discipline, including losing pay for missed days.

CPS “has begun carefully monitoring district-wide absenteeism trends to help research and address teacher attendance,” he said but did not specify how.

At some schools, teacher absenteeism isn’t an issue at all. The data counts 19 entities — some of them are individual schools, some are networks of charter or contract schools not broken out by campus — where not even one teacher used more than 10 paid days off. Fifteen of them served mostly low-income students.

Contributing: Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little

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