How do student absences affect students?

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A story in the Providence Journal focuses on Central Falls, the tiny city best known in Massachusetts education circles as the place where the CF Schools Superintendent, with the support of RI Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, fired all of the district’s teachers unless they agreed to reforms that included spending more time in the classrooms.

That story drew national headlines, but the city of Central Falls and the school district continue to garner headlines in Rhode Island.

The city is facing bankruptcy, with the head of a special commission suggesting that the entire city be folded into Pawtucket. (The mayor of Pawtucket wasn’t so hot on that idea.) There are numerous stories that are still coming out concerning the school district, which touch upon a number of important questions that we ought to be asking ourselves, such as

  • How extensive are teacher absences in our larger urban districts (as well as a number of suburban districts)?
  • How organized are the districts to ensure that adequate and prepared substitute teachers are available?

The Journal’s Jennifer Jordan notes the following regarding absences in the CF school district:

Since the school year started Sept. 1, there has not been a single day when all of the 88 teachers at Central Falls High School have shown up for work.

On that first day, two teachers called in sick and a third took a personal day.

And there have been only five days — all in September — when administrators were able to replace all the missing teachers with substitutes.

The teacher-absence problem started with just a handful of teachers calling in sick or taking a required professional development day. But as autumn rolled on, several teachers resigned and the mounting number of absent teachers left administrators struggling to fill the open slots.

Just last week

… there were at least 19 teachers out every day, 10 to 13 of whom called in sick each day.

The severity of the problem came to light last week when The Journal reported that more than half of the high school’s 840 students didn’t receive a grade in one or more classes for the first quarter. The school’s leaders, Deputy Supt. Victor Capellan and co-principals Evelyn Cosme-Jones and Sonn Sam, said 453 students did not receive solid instruction in several classes, and therefore no grade could be given.

They also acknowledged that in most cases the lost class time could not be made up.

Now, this could be part of a loosely coordinated and unofficial union “action” to slow down reform plans or to signal their displeasure with school managers. Or it could simply be how things have been in CF for a long time. Either way, it clearly is impacting the kids.

In conversations with school managers in Massachusetts, and especially in our larger districts, I have not heard of similar problems, with the possible exception of a lower grade issue in Springfield when the city was in receivership, and some anecdotes passed to me pointing to possibly higher levels of absence in the Lawrence school district. In Springfield, the absences were a longstanding problem, which was exacerbated by massive shifts in teachers and the two-year battle over a contract that ultimately led to a nominal merit pay system (nominal meaning that it does not seem to have been significantly implemented) and a lower year-to-year set of pay and step increases.

So what is the level of absences in our school districts? It would be great to see the data.

Just as importantly, what are districts doing to ensure that substitutes are prepared (know what the lesson plan should be, have spoken with the teacher, are capable of teaching the content)? Springfield was working on having master teachers develop a system to make sure substitutes had advice on what to teach and some basics about the class as they walked in.