Truant Teachers — a Systemic Failure?

Bad Teacher. At least Cameron Diaz showed up for school!
Bad Teacher. At least Cameron Diaz showed up for school!

by James A. Bacon

Everyone knows that truancy is a problem in Virginia’s public schools. If students don’t make it to class, they don’t learn, they drop out, and many go on to live miserable, impoverished lives. We’ve all heard the story.

What happens when teachers don’t show up at school? The problem is more prevalent than I’d imagined.

John Butcher, writing at Cranky’s Blog, has a knack for digging up arcane educational data, and it turns out that the U.S. Department of Education’s “Civil Rights Data Collection” tracks the number of teachers absent from work for more than ten days for reasons not related to professional development.

There is extraordinary variability by school district, Butcher finds. Here in Virginia, of the 656 teachers in Franklin County public schools, not a single teacher was absent more than ten days in 2014. By contrast, 68 of 98 teachers (69%) in Lancaster County public schools missed school. In a majority of districts, the percentage of truant teachers ran between 20% and 40%.

This strikes me as a phenomenon that needs exploring.

First, it is worth inquiring whether there is a link between high teacher truancy and low educational achievement. All other things being equal, a substitute teacher parachuting into a classroom cannot be as effective as a teacher who knows the students, knows what has been taught already, and knows what needs to be taught.

Second, it is also worth inquiring whether there is a link between teacher truancy and the number of substitute teachers that schools must maintain on staff. In other words, does the problem force schools to spend more money on payroll than they would otherwise? If so, how much are absentee teachers costing the schools?

Third, the extreme variability in teacher truancy suggests that some school systems are more effective at managing the problem than others. If half your school system’s teachers are absent more than 10 days, it sounds like you’ve got a major management issue. Could addressing the truant teacher problem be a lever for school administrators to improve student achievement and save money?

Finally, before going off the deep end and declaring that we have a system failure on our hands, it would be helpful to better understand the nature of the numbers. What exactly do “absences” include, and why is the baseline set at ten days? I assume that teachers are allowed a number of “personal” days off to deal with personal and family emergencies — perhaps that’s why USDOE tracks only teachers who have been absent more than 10 times.

However, unless there is something about these statistics that doesn’t meet the eye, it looks like literally thousands of Virginia teachers are playing hooky. I cannot see how such behavior can be countenanced. Why isn’t this a scandal?

Update: Butcher’s follow-up analysis shows even more variability between individual schools within the City of Richmond than between school districts. Overall, Richmond schools have the ninth highest teacher truancy rate of all school districts in Virginia. At John Marshall High School only 16% of teachers were no-shows more than ten days. But at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, the rate was 94% of teachers!

Butcher then asked a critical question: Is there any correlation between teacher truancy and student performance? Based on the sample of Richmond schools, the answer appears to be not. However, he notes that the school system spent $4.1 million on substitute teachers in 2014. If the city could cut the use of substitutes by half, it could give its other teachers a 2% raise.

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15 responses to “Truant Teachers — a Systemic Failure?”

  1. John B Avatar

    This is probably going to be a very unpopular comment, but my sense is that were they employed in the private sector I wonder if they’d generate such a statistic. Since I can’t back that up, Jim, how about you dig us up some stats on other government entities and the private sector.

    One more gut feeling I might as well express while I’m digging myself a hole is I suspect white collar non-management type private employees exhibit more absenteeism than blue collar folks because they feel they can (and do) get away with it.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    What this demonstrates is that some folks never got a good background in data and statistics and are total disasters at “analyzing” said data – downright dangerous in the way they “interpret”…

    the biggest sin – common from folks on the right these days is selective “slurping” of data without a good understanding of the context or even the specifics then trying to extrapolate it into something it’s not and never was but that don’t seem to affect the “slurping”.

    Cranky spends a lot of his time swilling data that he clearly does not understand nor really intends to , then puts on display for all to see – then makes sure no one can comment on his ”work” so he just blathers it out … as if it actually has some real meaning beyond what he thinks.

    spent some time going through his “analysis” of the SGP data and was horrified at how he has no intention of trying to validate it, understand it, – just flop it out on the page and let it stink to high heaven.

    sorry – this kind stuff is not as they say worth a roomful of warm spittoons….

    there’s a reason why statistics and data analysis is actually a real curriculum in College – taught and learned … and practiced with skill by those who actually are educated in it.

  3. John B Avatar

    Gee, LtG I found it interesting, for example how our schools at The Beach are supposedly so good in spite of our percentage just below Richmond’s (and about the worst on our side of the harbor). Maybe you could be a bit more specific about your objections.

    One other point: If you make these kinds of analyses too complicated the typical reader either can’t understand it or doesn’t want to make the effort; ergo it gets lost and no benefits are derived nor are any improvements made. If nothing else, it provokes additional questions as Jim said.

  4. A statistical analysis can only be wrong if the mechanics of the analysis are in error or if unsupported conclusions are drawn. Neither error appears to be present in Cranky’s Blog. The data is straight forward and sourced from government databases. The only conclusion is that the data show a high degree of variability which certainly appears to be true. I rate LarrytheG’s criticism as 4 Hillaries on a 5 Hillary scale of dishonesty and / or delusion.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    This is probably a very good substitute for the “employee engagement” score generated by the Gallup organization, which is so popular with many corporate HR departments……And this is a score that might be useful in evaluating principals. That kind of variation within the same school district (Richmond) begs for the conclusion that 1) some school environments are so toxic the teachers just don’t want to show up and 2) the personnel policies are so weak they can get away with it. Once enough employees have successfully ditched work that many days, it is not surprising the practice becomes widespread.

    I’ve mentally reviewed my wife’s teaching career and I can’t think of any time she was absent from work that much except a couple of years when our kids were little and had some long medical stretches that stretched both of our paid leave plans to the breaking point. But that wouldn’t be half of the teachers in a school. One element I didn’t notice in John’s data – were these one off years or were these same schools high year after year?

    Oh and on the other point, a 30 minute debate between Butcher and Gross would be over in three and John would be buying victory rounds for the rest of the time…..Sorry, Larry, when this guy and I worked in the same organization he had a rep for being pretty darn smart.

  6. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    Anytime anybody posts something that “the G” doesn’t agree with or understand is an automatic idiot, racist, lightweight thinker, etc.
    I, for one, wish he would start his own blog and leave this one behind. He uses more than enough energy with his mouth foaming rants to be one of the major contributors to global warming. We need more of John’s intelligent analysis.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    basically the premise here is to attack the public school system.

    but beyond that –

    what are the reasons why teachers miss days?

    is pregnancy one of them?

    is it possible that some school systems have larger numbers of entry level teachers that do get pregnant while other systems are not as fast growing and thus have an older workforce?

    how about the difference within the same school system – a different schools?

    how about schools that are in low income neighborhoods and who have primarily entry level and a high turnover?

    and no HCJ – will not leave – in part because of some of the offal that gets posted here and needs rebutting and I gladly welcome others who DO have intelligent points of view – like Mr. Haner which clearly contrasts with some others who opine about genes and other racist foolishness.

    the point is – you cannot do an intelligent analysis at 20,000 feet but then if your entire point is to essentially attack the public school system – it don’t really matter anyhow.

    Butcher is clever – he knows how to use spreadsheets and he’s tapped into a trove of data generated by the government – something that is pretty ironic given how he has chosen to use it…as a general attack against public education in general –

    Note that in the “follow-up” that he actually did take some time to get to a deeper and more intelligent analysis and what did he find?

    ” Butcher then asked a critical question: Is there any correlation between teacher truancy and student performance? Based on the sample of Richmond schools, the answer appears to be not. However, he notes that the school system spent $4.1 million on substitute teachers in 2014. If the city could cut the use of substitutes by half, it could give its other teachers a 2% raise”

    so this is damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    what the heck does he think the schools would do to reduce absentees if he has no clue why , no matter – he’d ding them for spending money on substitutes even if they maintain performance.

    If you had this kind of data for ANY enterprise – public or private – large or small -you could use it to do this kind of “oh and here’s yet another problem” – “analysis”.

    the real point is what are you trying to achieve with it other than ding public schools as much and as often as you can dredge the data?

    I give credit for the ability to exploit the data – not so much for how he is using it – to this point -anyhow – it seems more destructive than productive but perhaps he’s got that ahead to work on.

    I note in the data sets – there is lots of other data – that could be revealing… look at the data set he is using.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Note the datas sources:

    Background Information
    Since 1968, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has conducted the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to collect data on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. The collection was formerly administered as the Elementary and Secondary School Survey (E&S Survey).

    The CRDC collects a variety of information including, student enrollment and educational programs and services, most of which is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, sex, limited English proficiency and disability. The CRDC is a longstanding and important aspect of the ED Office for Civil Rights (OCR) overall strategy for administering and enforcing the civil rights statutes for which it is responsible.

    Information collected by the CRDC is also used by other ED offices as well as policymakers and researchers outside of ED.

    Again – NOTE – that this is the SAME govt – collecting this data that can be used to good – and not good purposes.. but it IS IN FACT – the govt collecting the data –

    So – you’d not even have this data to start with – if it were not for the Government -… you’d have no ability to do any of this analysis.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    one more and sorry for multiple posts but the actual dataset that is being used

    2015–16 Civil Rights Data Collection:
    List of CRDC Data Elements for School Year 2015–16

    this is about 6 pages of data sets – look through them

    go try to find the one selected about teacher truancy:

    “Number of FTE teachers absent more than 10 school days (excluding professional development) ”

    it’s way at the end – Butcher skipped over, in my view, much more interesting data-sets worth looking at for Virginia – and individual schools within school districts in Virginia…

    I think looking at individual schools within districts is also important if your goal is to generate information that actually can be used for things beyond just tarring public education in general for it’s flaws and failures.

  10. Larry, please note that you are the only one jumping to conclusions.

    I wrote, “Finally, before going off the deep end and declaring that we have a system failure on our hands, it would be helpful to better understand the nature of the numbers. However, unless there is something about these statistics that doesn’t meet the eye…”

    Any conclusion I drew was preliminary and caveated. By contrast, you reject the suggestions I made out of hand. Obviously, there are certain areas that you would prefer left in the dark.

  11. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    LG, obviously it is your genes that make you what you are (H-A), one who can only spew vile comments about those that you neither understand or agree with. As I follow John’s postings I notice that he consistently details the individual schools in Richmond where he lives contrary to your comments. But John doesn’t need me to sing his praises but only has to read your blather to know that his intelligence trumps your closed minded commentary and cut & paste mentality. There is hope for you as I have been reading about CRISPR intelligent gene splicing but you would have to be open minded to grasp the fact that there is such a thing as an intelligent gene. Somewhere along the way your mother surely must have taught you just a few manners. It is OK to disagree without being disagreeable.

  12. BAWmson Avatar

    Is there a correlation between perceived school discipline and teacher absences? What makes up “truancy days?”

  13. LarrytheG Avatar

    HCJ lecturing about genes and manners in the same post is funny!!!!!

    re: jumping to conclusions

    Here’s Cranky’s subtitle: ” Enduring the second most embarrassing municipal government in the East”

    here’s Bacon’s lead in : ” What happens when teachers don’t show up at school? The problem is more prevalent than I’d imagined.”

    It’s not just one post – it’s a pattern of attacking institutions like public education – to paint them as failures – often because they are run by the govt.

    Don thinks as long as the stuff presented is accurate – it’s fine. I think if all you ever do is cherry pick and selectively focus on only some aspects – with an agenda – it’s tantamount to deception and we see this a lot with some agenda-driven organizations these days who basically slice and dice data to produce their version of reality – no matter what the actual truth might be.

    who in their right mind thinks that teachers getting days off is a threat to public education (any more or less than say Police or fire and rescue, etc)?
    what a dumb concept! Administrators have a responsibility of dealing with absences. Most schools have a significant pool of “subs” on a database that are selected for duty as soon as an upcoming absence is known. It’s a normal and typical process and anyone who knows education – knows that one of the duties of teachers is to keep detailed daily logs of what is to be covered – in case of an absence. Teachers who don’t keep those logs are subject to sanctions even firing… because it’s so important for the sub to be able to pick up where things were left off.

    who would look at this data and NOT SEE that MOST schools don’t have that problem to start with – they deal with it as they should.

    that’s an indication of a successful institution – not a failure.

    what does that say – that some schools – especially ones within districts where most are good and one or more are not?

    well, it sure as hell does not mean that public education is a “failure” as implied here more often than not.

    real world – there are schools with problems – it happens. there can be lots of contributing factors – which is what you’d find if you REALLY want more than the typical anti-govt, anti-public education mindset on display here in BR much of the time. Sometimes – the problems are Chronic.

    Rarely – it can be the whole district but more often than not – it indicates a school with problems – often in neighborhoods with large numbers of at-risk kids who are harder to teach, take more experienced teachers in a modern day environment where they don’t get paid more – AND in today’s political environment thanks to “critics” – demands that teachers who can’t single-handedly solve the problem – be fired. to be replace presumably by someone “better”.

    Like a lot of other criticisms – there is seldom a thought as to what to do to fix it other than fire teachers or send kids to charter school – who of course don’t have known standards on performance – student or teacher and don’t report them anyhow.

    so all of this “stuff” is basically going through data that the govt requires to be collected from public schools – and looking for “gotcha” type data to illustrate just how bad govt and public education – with not a scintilla of thought as to what could or should be done about it – other than to conclude that govt and “bureaucrats” can’t really do education – it’s a “flawed” concept from the get go.

    and this is just part of it – other posts go into race and genes to illustrate presumably that it’s “no one’s fault” that some folks just lack the genes to get educated… anyhow.

    For myself -I’ve advocated NOT to use race or “bad teachers” or “Bad parents” as ignorant excuses but to focus on the reasons WHY – SOME schools DO have problems – and if non-public schools can fix it – I’m all for it but I’m NOT in favor of setting up such schools without holding them to similar standards – of performance, disclosure and accountability.

    I doubt seriously that anyone is going to set up a truly competitive alternative school in some areas of concentrated poor and large numbers of at risk-kids – with high quality , long term teachers who stay – but I’m more than willing to take that path – with caveats of apple-to-apple metrics.

    Contrast that with the way that Bacon and Cranky approach these issues –

    one blog post after another of condemnation, blame and failure – without anything any more than the idea that this is once again “proof” of just how bad public schools and public education is – and that it really can’t be fixed unless we turn it over to non-public – with no standards and accountability.

    Cranky actually has that ability – that capability if he is willing to mine that data with an eye towards revealing more of what schools and what problems – just exposing key facts about the schools with issues .

    these are some of the current topics:

    Richmond Teacher Truancy
    Crime Is Up
    Teacher Truancy
    Sex and Truancy
    SAT Splat (Again)
    Chronic Absence by Division
    What Do They Learn When They’re Not In School?
    Reedy Creek: If It Ain’t Broke, Spend Tax Money to Fix It
    Reedy Creek Boondoggle
    Has Roanoke Joined the Cheaters Club?

    come on – this is like a blog version of some anti-govt tabloid!

    and BR is getting just as bad with some of its “stuff” in my view.

  14. John B Avatar

    Wow! 922 words. May be a new record.

  15. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Any conclusion I drew was preliminary and caveated”

    Au Contraire !

    ” Truant Teachers — a Systemic Failure?”

    Then you did re-write your original post but left the title.

    I do give you and Butcher credit for realizing that looking a individual schools is a far more intelligent approach than trying to tar entire districts or to imply as you both did that there is something systematically wrong with public education – which has become a theme here in BR but done with play on words… the message is basically the same – that public education has many problems .. and failures in no small part because they are run by bureaucrats and govt … which pretty much ensures that they will not perform effectively.

    then you’ve both along with HCJ and a couple of others played around with the idea of genes and bad parents … bad teachers.. basically implying that perhaps these things can’t be “fixed” and are not “our fault” – that “we” cannot fix these things.

    …. as if education is a zero-sum – total success vs total failure for a kid.

    as if a kid actually does have disadvantages that it’s too expensive to fix and we’ve tried for years to fix and we’ve failed…

    Once Butcher actually gets to a per school focus – we know this. That most schools do a decent job. Some do a very good job. And some have problems.

    trying to portray that as a “system failure” as implied by the blog title and the cute picture is a disservice to the subject – as is dredging up Murray and the bell curve and all that ignorant tripe.

    we educate kids – that’s what we do . It don’t matter if they have IQs of 150 or they are severely handicapped. Every kid – every human has potential – even those like Helen Keller – that if we DO EDUCATE – they DO GAIN and do advance to achieve their potential.

    when we make excuses for the challenges that are faced in accomplishing this and using those excuses as reasons to give up and walk away – then whatever is being written here in that vein – i.e. that public education has systemic failures… etc.. etc.. has no real purpose or goal… just blather.

    there is no question that some schools are terrible – I totally admit that and the reason why is due to the way we operate – but it’s Not due to the premise that public education another example of a government failure that could be done better by non-govt.

    we have a world of advanced nations who all do govt-run public education quite well and we have another world of 3rd world countries to show what happens when govt fails to become the primary agent of education.

    there are no countries on earth that do education “better” than govt-provided education – NONE..

    but reading these pages where we opine about public education -you’d not get that impression – at all.. Instead – it’s a fail and we ought to go to charter/choice schools not held to the same standards as public schools – but of course -funded from public dollars.. because of “genes” , bad teachers, and bad parents, apparently.

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