Our Pledge To You

News

Editorial: No way all those absent Chicago teachers are ill

Douglass Academy High School has the worst teacher attendance rate among CPS high Schools. | Google

Everything good that happens in a classroom starts with the teacher who is standing in front of it. When the teacher is missing on a regular basis, it takes a toll on student learning.

Unfortunately, it turns out the teacher is missing frequently.

New numbers show teachers are missing in action a surprising amount of the time. According to an analysis by Sun-Times reporter Lauren Fitzpatrick of data from the Illinois State Board of Education, about one of every four Chicago Public Schools teachers misses more than 10 days of school a year. Similar rates of absenteeism occur at schools elsewhere in the state. At one school — Douglass Academy High School in Austin — about 82 percent of the teachers were gone 10 days or more in a year.

That’s a problem that begs for a solution. One fix would be for Illinois to make teacher absenteeism a key factor — a metric — in measuring school accountability under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. This is an uncomplicated solution proposed by Raegen Miller, a researcher at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. It would give administrators a strong push to find ways to keep teachers in class.

EDITORIAL

“Teachers are the most important school-based influence on student achievement,” Miller told the Sun-Times. “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.”

Some of the teachers who were out for more than 10 days a year were taking maternity leave or other short-term disability. They have the time coming. But when a quarter of the teachers are chalking up excessive absences, that’s a big red flag. Especially since teachers already get generous time off — long holiday breaks, spring breaks and summer vacations. The trend is especially worrisome in Chicago because most of the schools suffering from high teacher absenteeism are in high-poverty areas of the city.

CPS teachers get 10 to 12 sick days a year along with three personal days. When a teacher is ailing, he or she should stay home. But when so many teachers are gone so many days, let’s not pretend. Teachers are calling in sick who are perfectly healthy, leaving their students in the lurch. It’s reminiscent of the mysterious ailment that leads Cook County Jail workers to call in sick on Super Bowl Sunday.

The U.S. Department of Education points to research that says a teacher’s steady presence in classroom is important because it allows for instructional continuity, Also, it’s the regular teacher who knows how and when to provide attention to particular students. Even an experienced substitute can’t replicate that if the substitute is meeting a class for the first time.

And those substitutes don’t come free. Whenever a school district has to call in a sub for a teacher who’s taking a day off for a spurious reason, taxpayers have to cough up a few extra dollars. In Chicago, shelling out for subs runs into many millions of dollars a year.

Teaching is a challenging job. It can be high-stress, especially when resources are lacking. But some schools, presumably those with good leadership, seem to know how to get teachers to come to class. Everyone on the faculty kept their absences below 10 a year at 500 schools around the state.

If 500 schools can meet such a benchmark, it suggests others can, too. Making teacher absenteeism an official factor in measuring school accountability would be step toward forcing schools to put kids before less-than-dedicated teachers.