The article below appeared in the Chicago Tribune . Be sure to email the authors and tell them to keep up the great investigative reporting.
Chicago to target absent teachers
$10 million spent annually by district for classroom subs
By Tracy Dell'Angela and Darnell Little
Tribune staff reporters
Published February 4, 2006
Driven by parental concerns about teacher absenteeism, the Chicago Public Schools for the first time will start scrutinizing schools with high numbers of teachers taking sick days.
The district also plans to publicize teacher attendance rates at each school beginning next school year.
"This is important to parents. There's never been a spotlight on this, and that's a mistake," Schools Chief Arne Duncan said of the new scrutiny, which was announced to schools in a memo this week. "I think it's like any workplace. When people feel good about the work, people want to be there. This is not only important for student learning, it's important to school culture."
On any given school day in Chicago, an average of 1,500 teachers, about 6 percent of the teaching staff, call in sick or take a personal day, according to a Tribune analysis of teacher payroll records. The absentee rate is highest on Fridays, when an average of 1,800 teachers don't show, the analysis revealed.
While some individual schools track teachers' attendance, the district has never tried to analyze how many teachers are out systemwide--or whether some schools have a disproportionate number of absent teachers.
For each of the last six school years, Chicago teachers missed an average of 12 unscheduled days in their 39-week work year. Their current contract calls for 10 sick days and three personal days.
By comparison, salaried employees nationwide take an average of five sick and personal days during their 50-week work year, according to a 2004 survey of 536 employers by a major human resource consulting company.
The district's effort is an attempt to address the academic disruption that occurs in schools with large numbers of teachers calling in sick. But it also is expected to reduce the hiring of substitutes, which costs the cash-strapped system more than $10 million a year.
Last school year, the district tapped 280,000 substitutes, with the peak coming in February, when demand for substitutes topped 47,000--or about 2,350 each day. The demand for subs in the 2005-06 school year is even higher, up about 27 percent for the first five months of this school year compared with the same period the year before, according to district reports.
The absentee problem falls hardest on students in schools perceived to be dangerous or chaotic because their schools have the toughest time securing substitutes, principals say. In May, an average of about 200 substitute requests each day went unfilled, which meant that the school had to find another staff member to cover the classroom. Stable schools typically have their own stock of steady substitutes and don't rely on the district's substitute center.
Union officials contend that the district is unfairly trying to punish teachers for taking days that are guaranteed by the contract.
"The district is using this as an intimidation tactic," union President Marilyn Stewart said. "Teachers may take off for a lot of reasons, either because they are sick or frustrated. It's no one's business. I don't see why it has to be public. Why do parents care, if it's not tied to test scores? You can clean your house without letting everyone see your dirt."
Stewart argued that most Chicago teachers are dedicated professionals who are working under heavy stress and are not misusing sick time. She blamed the high absentee rates in certain schools on principals, who contribute to teachers' stress but do little to manage their staffs.
One principal agreed, saying the new policy stigmatizes schools without addressing some of the underlying reasons that drive teachers to call in sick even when they are not.
"There are a lot of things coming down from the central office from people who have no idea what it's like to be in a classroom with 32 children and an unsupportive principal," said Christina Gonzalez, principal of Zapata Academy on the Southwest Side. "Absences create chaos in the classroom and it creates chaos in the building. And of course you don't want teachers to be absent. But I don't think this is fair. I really don't think most teachers abuse it."
Duncan said the idea is not to shame teachers, but to spot schools where the absences suggest a deeper morale problem.
"If teachers are feeling that level of stress, then the question needs to be why and what can we do to relieve it," Duncan said.
Some school leaders favor the public attention because it lends weight to their own scrutiny of teachers suspected of misusing sick days.
At Otis Elementary, Principal James Cosme tracks his teachers' attendance yearly and looks for excessive absences that can't be explained by a long illness or family emergency. In a typical year, he may call in three teachers--out of his staff of 50--to discuss excessive absences. Usually it works, but sometimes it doesn't. He once had a teacher who frequently called in sick on Mondays, which Cosme suspected was caused by a drinking problem. He ultimately decided to dock the teacher's pay, and the teacher retired soon after.
Cosme also makes a practical appeal, urging teachers to conserve their sick days and bank them in case they need them in coming years for an unexpected illness. Or they can cash them in at the end of their career for a richer pension.
Even though he's paying attention to the issue, he welcomes the extra scrutiny.
"Anytime you shine a light on something, it forces self-examination," said Cosme, who said that in a typical year his teachers average six to seven sick days. "It will be interesting data because I don't know how well I do compared to other schools like mine."
At Bethune Elementary, Principal Charlotte Stoxstell is already one step ahead of the district. She sends out notices to teachers every month or two, detailing their attendance and punctuality rates. When it dips below 95 percent, the teachers are "reminded" they are falling short of the school's improvement goals.
And she tries to set a good example, taking care of her personal business in the evening or the weekends. At times, she even covers a teacher's classroom when he or she calls in, which is usually embarrassing enough to discourage frivolous absences, she said.
"I do fuss at them, but I don't just focus on the people who are out absent," she said. "I give it to everyone and I salute those who come every day."