The news out of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island is deeply troubling. The Providence Journal reported that upwards of 15 percent of the roughly 87- teacher faculty is absent on any given day, six are on long-term leave and two have abruptly resigned ("Resignation, absenteeism by teachers hampering turnaround in Central Falls," Dec. 15). Clearly, something is terribly wrong.
This is the school that made headlines in February when it fired all teachers because only 48 percent of its students graduated after four years, compared with a statewide average of 75 percent. In May, all cashiered teachers were hired back after an agreement was reached between the union and the district that called for a longer school day and more after-school tutoring, among other changes.
The initial reaction is to demand that immediate steps be taken to provide students at the struggling school with the education they deserve. The rights of students, of course, must come first. But before that can happen, it's important not to jump to conclusions. To avoid doing so requires stepping back from the picture at Central Falls High School in order to gain a better perspective.
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.
Resignations are also highest in high-poverty schools. Nationwide, one in two teachers quits after five years. In inner-city schools, where poverty is most pronounced, they resign after three years, according to a study in 2006 by the Haberman Educational Foundation.
However, these statistics not only do not come close to what is occurring in Central Falls, but even more important they do not explain the causes of the disparity. 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 latter can't be far from the minds of teachers at Central Falls High School because they had already been fired once, only to get an eleventh-hour reprieve. Trauma doesn't evaporate without leaving an indelible imprint. The high absenteeism is a wholly predictable symptom because the effects of stress are cumulative.
That's why it's fair to question the remarks made by Kenneth K. Wong, chairman of Brown University's department of education. He urged direct action by the state if the district and the union could not quickly solve the teacher absenteeism problem. But speed in addressing teacher absenteeism and - by extension - resignations is not as important as first understanding what is causing these troubling facts.
As Carl Cohn, who replaced Bersin as superintendent in San Diego, said: "There are no quick fixes or perfect educational theories. School reform is a slow, steady labor-intensive process" that depends on "harnessing the talent of individuals instead of punishing them for non-compliance with bureaucratic mandates and destroying their initiative."
For Central Falls High School, these are words of wisdom.