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Report: RI Teacher Absenteeism Worst in America

Saturday, February 16, 2013


A new report by US Department of Education says more than half of RI teachers miss more than 10 days in a school year.

Five months after a GoLocalProv review of attendance records showed that one out of every five teachers in Providence missed at least 20 days of school in the previous year, a new national study has revealed that teacher absenteeism wasn’t just a district-wide problem but one plaguing the entire Ocean State.

In fact, the problem is so bad that Rhode Island has the absolute worst rate of teacher absenteeism in the whole country.

In the first-ever review of such data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, a whopping 50.2 percent of Rhode Island teachers were reported as having missed more than 10 days in a “typical 180-day school year” during 2012.

That was good enough for the top spot in the nationwide ranking as Rhode Island beat out Hawaii (49.6%), Arkansas (48.5%), New Mexico (47.5%) and Michigan (45.6%) for the dubious distinction.

“It is astonishing and deeply disturbing to see data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights showing that Rhode Island has the highest rate of teacher absenteeism in the nation,” said Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.”Unexpected teacher absences can disrupt instruction, and repeated teacher absences can set back the process of teaching and learning. Last year, we identified 29 schools as either “focus” or “priority” schools, and we have required each school to develop a turnaround plan and put that plan into action. We are monitoring these plans, and we expect to see immediate improvement in several key, leading indicators – including improvements in teacher-attendance rates.”

For Providence school teacher Carole Marshall, the results aren’t surprising.

“It's really a problem,” she said. “Students, especially in the urban schools, are desperately in need of continuity in their studies and they have no time to waste, which is what happens when teachers are out. Also, students need models for responsible professional behavior. How can we expect them to come to school daily if they are facing substitutes day after day? There's also the emotional and psychological aspect of the problem; it can easily feel like abandonment when a teacher is out frequently.”

Perhaps most troubling is that it appears the problem is actually on the rise.

An Alarming Trend

According to an analysis of data from the 2009 school year by the Rhode Island Foundation, RI was second to Hawaii three years ago with a percentage of 47.7, nearly five points lower than the Aloha State’s 52.6.

In that report, Woonsocket had the state’s worst percentage as nearly three out of every four teachers in that district, or a total of 72.2 percent, had missed more than 10 days of schools in the 2009 school year.
Central Falls (64.9), Providence (56.9) and Pawtucket (50.7) were right behind Woonsocket during that year and

Marshall says it’s been a “longstanding problem” for urban teachers.

“In Providence, there's been more than a decade of churning of the leadership, the mandates and the models; it's very hard to work within all that chaos,” she said. “People get overwhelmed.”

Marshall believes the problem “may be worse than ever” because teachers are being forced to follow mandates without question and without concern to what effect they might have on students.

“As professionals who've agreed to work in poor physical environments and often difficult situations,” she said. “It's quite demoralizing to feel the level of disrespect for teachers, not only from the general public but also from administrators.”

In a report on the subject from USA Today, absent teachers are estimated to cost schools at least $4 billion a year, or one percent of schools’ budgets.

What’s the Solution?

RIDE Commissioner Deborah Gist says the state will find a solution to its chronic absenteeism problem.

Gist says chronic absenteeism is a subject the Rhode Island Department of Education takes very seriously.

“As I have said many times, the single most important school-based factor affecting student achievement is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher,” Gist said. “As we work together to transform education in Rhode Island, we need to have great teachers in every classroom, every day.”

Marshall says fixing the issue involves communicating directly with the teachers involved.

Pointing to a program initiated by RIDE in the mid-90s at Hope High School where teachers “were allowed to create a strategic plan for school improvement and then were given support to follow it,” Marshall says she saw first-hand how teachers were energized and looked forward to going to school.

“It was messy but we eventually created three small learning communities with a dedicated guidance counselor for each community, a portfolio-based graduation requirement, longer periods for more depth of learning, school-wide rubrics, literacy across the curriculum, and time for teachers to plan together,” she said. “All this led to teachers who were energized, dedicated, and willing to work hard to become better at their profession. Hope's teachers went above and beyond their job requirements for those years.”

Finding a way to spark that kind of effort of all of Rhode Island teachers may reduce the state’s absenteeism rate.

“Teachers like everyone else want to be proud of what they do and that is what gets them up in the morning and ready to roll,” Marshall said.

Gist also commends the teachers in Rhode Island and says that she believes the vast majority are “truly dedicated every day to the hard work of teaching their students” and improving the state’s school.

And the latest report will be one RIDE pays special attention to.

“We will review the data that the Office for Civil Rights has reported for comparison with data from our school districts to get a complete picture of the rates of teacher absenteeism,” she said. “Because of my unwavering commitment to ensuring that we have excellent educators in every Rhode Island school, I cannot and will not accept that half of our teachers miss more than ten days of school per year. Our students deserve better.”


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