Last week, a new study reported that 28 percent of teachers working in traditional public schools use sick days or personal leave to miss more than ten days of school each year. The analysis, authored by David Griffith of the center-right Fordham Institute, found that the comparable figure at charter schools was 10 percent. Meanwhile, Griffith noted, the typical U.S. worker takes about three and a half sick days a year. The disparity between district schools and charter schools occasioned much comment, given what it says about the effects of collective-bargaining agreements and differences in culture across the two sectors. But at least equally noteworthy was how teachers’-union leaders chose to respond to the analysis.
Anyone who’s spent any time in classrooms knows the sad truth that little gets done when substitute teachers are in the saddle. This means that more than one-fourth of the nation’s district classrooms lost at least two weeks of learning last year, due solely to teachers’ taking the day off. Those who spend their time insisting that teachers deserve more professional respect should be livid about this, shouldn’t they? They should be furious with slackers who aren’t shouldering their load while making it harder to ensure that hard-working, responsible teachers are seen accordingly. After all, if one wants teachers to be seen as professionals, it’s vital that all of the nation’s teachers — not 72 percent of them — act the part.
Instead, they reacted like petulant middle-schoolers, rushing to offer a medley of complaints and excuses of the kind that any good teacher would laugh off if offered up by a seventh-grader busted for skipping school. Robert Walsh, executive director of National Education Association, Rhode Island, complained vaguely that the study “does not control for the age of the workforce, maternity leaves or other variables” before going on to dismiss Fordham as “a right-wing think tank that attacks unionized public schools.” Carl Korn of the New York State United Teachers insisted the report is “an ideological propaganda document” and told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that he hasn’t seen any evidence that teacher absenteeism is a significant problem.
Doug Pratt of the Michigan Education Association protested, “When you walk into a building in the middle of winter, the flu bug that’s going around and sidelining students and staff can spread like wildfire. . . . Do you want a teacher whose parent or partner is undergoing chemotherapy that morning — and because of the reasonable amount of time they’ve bargained — gets to be with their family member and take care of what they need to? Or should they be in front of students distracted?”
When nearly one-fourth of teachers are missing another two weeks of school on top of their 190-day year, it’s a problem.
National teachers’-union leaders didn’t acquit themselves any better. National Education Association president Lilly Eskelsen-Garcia said, “Fordham is using corrupted assertions to draw misguided conclusions.” Her counterpart, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, explained, “The reality is that charter schools need better leave policies, not worse ones, a fact ignored by Fordham.”
I have long argued that advocates need to listen more closely to educators and that reformers need to avoid scapegoating teachers for problems caused by dysfunctional bureaucracies or disengaged parents; that policymakers should more actively solicit the input of teachers; that the power of charter schooling and vouchers is partly their ability empower and provide options to teachers. Yet all of that presumes that teachers, in turn, will take responsibility for their profession. As I observed a few years ago in The Cage-Busting Teacher of efforts to promote teacher professionalism:
Moral authority doesn’t come from saying that one is fighting for students. It comes from a track record of clear, consistent actions to promote great teaching and learning and to defend professional excellence. It comes with demonstrated success and a record of doing things to help teachers get better, to stop districts from wasting time or money, and to ensure that mediocre employees (whether they work in the central office or in classrooms) find another line of work. Moral authority is earned. It’s a product of teachers convincing parents, voters, and policymakers that, “We’ve got this.”
Now, let’s be fair: For those who have never taught, it can be hard to appreciate some of the realities of the teaching day. Teachers can’t go to the bathroom when they want. They’re on their feet for hours at a stretch. If they feel dizzy or down, they can’t just watch YouTube videos for an hour, take a long lunch, or knock off early. Acknowledging all that is in order. That said, the reality is that teachers typically work a 190-day year, compared to the 230 or so worked by most Americans. They already possess a full panoply of school breaks and federal holidays, as well as summer vacation.
When nearly one-fourth of teachers are missing another two weeks of school a year on top of all that, it’s a problem. But it’s an even bigger problem that those who speak for the profession respond to the news as the children they teach might do — with anger at being busted — rather than like responsible adults. It will be hard for teachers to earn the esteem they seek until those who claim to speak for the profession start to grow up.
— Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Cage-Busting Teacher.