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Teacher Absences and the Achievement Gap

One of the greatest challenges facing reformers is recruiting the best teachers for the worst schools. These schools are disproportionately staffed by novice teachers who have not yet demonstrated their effectiveness. Convinced that veteran teachers with a track record of success will flock there if the proper incentives are put in place, reformers are pushing hard to implement their strategies.

There's one problem, however, that gets little attention. It was the basis of a news story in the Wall Street Journal on Apr. 28 ("Teacher Absences Plague Schools"). Even if the best teachers agree to teach where they are needed the most, will learning improve? According to the Journal's analysis, one-fifth of New York City teachers were absent for more than two weeks last school year. Not surprisingly, absenteeism was highest in some of the poorest schools, where the problems teachers face boggle the mind.

Although the data collected came from only New York City, it's likely that similar findings would turn up if other large urban districts were examined. That's because they share certain characteristics. The most important is that the schools serve overwhelming numbers of poor students from chaotic backgrounds. As a result, the deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that teachers are forced to deal with before they can even begin to teach subject matter are daunting. Although the best teachers may be better able to cope than their colleagues, they are not immune from the cumulative effects.

This observation has direct implications for the achievement gap. Forget that it's costly to hire substitutes. New York City, for example, spent $119 million on substitute teachers last year that could have been used to hire more permanent teachers in order to reduce class size. More to the point is that every instructional day counts, most notably for disadvantaged students. So if one of the goals of the reform movement is to narrow the academic achievement gap, then absenteeism is a major contributing factor.

The larger question, however, is why teachers take as many days off as they do in the first place. Reformers are clueless. They like to point out that there are typically 184 days in a school year. In the business world, there are about 250 days in a calendar year. So why do teachers, who work fewer days, need to take more than the allotted ten days a year that most districts provide?

It's a fair question that warrants a thoughtful answer. The fact is that teaching in many ways is like acting. Teachers are always in the spotlight. Their audience, however, too often is not there by choice. As a result, teachers are under enormous stress simply to get their attention, maintain order, and attend to non-curricular issues. In short, they have to practice triage. This demand eventually exacts a price, which is reflected in the number of days they are absent.

If their substitutes were first-rate, that might not be the problem it is. But 77 percent of school districts in the nation give substitutes no training, and 56 percent hire them without conducting face-to-face interviews. On any given day, 5.2 percent of teachers nationwide are absent. This statistic means that students have substitute teachers for nearly a year of their K-12 education. Is it any wonder why this affects learning and the achievement gap?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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