Teacher Absenteeism and RI’s Gap in Accountability


Taylor Swaak on The 74 reports that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) is beginning to use its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to address teacher absenteeism:

… This means the state will consider teacher absenteeism rates when gauging schools’ success and identifying low-performing schools. All ESSA plans have been approved as of last month.

The need for reform is clear in the Ocean State. It reported the third-highest rate of chronic teacher absenteeism nationwide — 41 percent — in 2015-16, according to federal data. Only Hawaii and Nevada recorded higher rates, at 48 and 50 percent, respectively.

Given the season, one thing that readers might observe is that Rhode Island is releasing its first ESSA report about our schools after the election.  Put that on the list of politically curious delays.

On a more-procedural note, though, consider what weak sauce this measure of accountability is.  First, the state includes the information in its report.  Next, the community has to begin making noise about it, pressure administrators, and elect new school committee members (or city/town council members where they handle contracts).  Then, those newly motivated decision-makers have to fight unions for changes in contracts.

As Swaak notes, teachers are absent so often because they are permitted to be.  Even with their 180-day school year, they still get a disproportionate number of extra days off — typically 20 sick days, plus a couple personal days, plus sabbaticals, plus leaves for various reasons, including union business.

With that as the origin of the problem, Swaak is correct to point out that the state doesn’t negotiate the contracts.  However, the state does set the conditions under which the local committees must negotiate.  If education really is a priority for Rhode Islanders, we have to begin tilting that balance back toward the officials who are supposed to be the people’s route to accountability.

  • Joe Smith

    There are two issues that shouldn’t be wrapped into one. The first is simply an whether being “absent” has any causal relationship with student learning (and I guess how we measure that is another issue!). If you follow the rabbit hole in the article you link, there is no real ‘study’ about a causal relationship – simply an article that wants to advocate for even less restrictions on charters because charter teachers have less absenteeism (correlation doesn’t equal causation..)

    The second issue is what are the causes for absenteeism. Teachers get sick; teachers take family leave; teachers go on professional or co-curricular activities – all “more than valid than not” reasons. Teachers also abuse sick days, game the system, – all “not so valid” reasons. Union business or related items are “contractually” valid but perhaps less so if the first issue finds causal relationship.

    The problem with the current methodology is it poorly does the first and then because it does not distinguish within the second issue, discussion shifts (and often without context) to whether teachers are scamming the system.