The Kansas City, Missouri, School District has an attendance problem. But it's not with the students. (And, no, it's not with former Superintendent John Covington, either.)
It's with the teachers.
The district's teachers take more sick days than health-care workers, according to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality: 9.6 days over the 2009-10 school year, with about 50 percent of those on Mondays or Fridays. The report, published in January, notes that this rate is in spite of district leave policies that the NCTQ rates better than those of many other school systems.
The NCTQ says this statistic is harmful to students. According to the council's website: "Researchers have found that every 10 absences lowers mathematics achievement by the same amount as having a new teacher instead of a more experienced teacher." And students showed up even when their teachers didn't. KC schools with high rates of teacher absenteeism didn't have students missing at a similarly high rate, according to the study.
A young teacher at the Paseo Academy, speaking with The Pitch on condition of anonymity, says the problem is one of morale.
"I think that, sadly, last year many teachers took off time because they simply did not want to come to school," the teacher says. "I think that teacher absenteeism was exacerbated by the fact that many teachers left my school at the end of last year by retiring or choosing to teach in another district. The teachers who knew they were leaving seemed to have less incentive to be at school in general." Job security has also been an issue, the teacher says.
Another teacher at the Southwest Early College Campus observed similar problems last year. She says teachers were open about skipping school.
"Teachers would pretty freely talk about it," she says. "Especially the teachers who had more experience [and] who had more experience with much more positive situations. They would say, 'You should take all of your days this year because this year is messed up.' "
She adds: "There were teachers that took a day a week. You could see a detachment from a focus with the kids and what needs to happen with them."
But this is just anecdotal evidence. How bad is the problem, exactly? And what can make it better?
That's not exactly clear.
"We don't always have answers behind why these absence rates behave the way they do," Emily Cohen, district policy director for the NCTQ and the project director for the study, tells The Pitch.
Cohen says the KCMSD didn't keep some basic records on its teachers. "All districts struggle with it [recordkeeping]," she says. "Kansas City really struggled with it." The study also had to throw out some of the district's data, which showed teacher absences on Saturdays and Sundays. Does the district even know when its teachers are really away?
It struggled to provide The Pitch with basic answers. The district's director of human resources was unaware of the large Saturday and Sunday data flaws, and Anthony Moore, the assistant superintendent for human resources, initially challenged the study's findings.
"Those numbers — I don't know where they got those numbers," Moore says of the NCTQ'S 9.6-absences-per-year claim. He explains that he crunched a few numbers after The Pitch contacted the district to ask about the absences. "For the last three years, they [the district's teachers] averaged less than a day a year per teacher."
Wait — one? Just one day? That's a remarkable claim.
Nonattendance rates of several other local and national schools reviewed by The Pitch revealed no rate nearly as low as that provided by Moore. The lowest teacher-absentee rate identified was Park Hill School District's five days a year per teacher.
Cohen expresses surprise at Moore's calculation.
"The likelihood that teachers there actually average one day a year and not almost 10 is impossible, based on the records we were provided," Cohen says. She adds that she has never seen a number that low among schools she has studied.
Mary Esselman, an assistant superintendent for professional development who works with the data, later confirmed to The Pitch that the NCTQ's numbers were correct.
School board President Airick Leonard West acknowledges that there have been problems with teacher absences and record-keeping. The board, he says, is moving to adopt new policies based largely on the report's recommendations. But it won't happen overnight.
"Unfortunately, you start to put this story together at a time when one superintendent who knew a lot about this leaves, and now we have a new one we need to get up to speed," West tells The Pitch.
Teachers' decisions to call in sick are influenced by a number of factors other than illness. Is it Monday? Friday? Does the teacher hate his or her job? Do co-workers miss a lot of days?
"When teachers transfer to a school with better attendance rates, their own attendance adjusts," Cohen says. NCTQ researchers, flummoxed by district policies that seemed well-designed, advise in their report that administrators should work to improve the culture within each school.
Absences in Kansas City, Missouri's schools increase as teachers get older, the report finds, with tenured teachers taking more absences than their nontenured peers. At first glance, that doesn't make sense. When a teacher retires, the district pays him or her for up to 175 unused sick days, at the rate of 75 percent of the teacher's salary. That's a good reason to show up. So why hasn't the policy worked better?
One theory, according to the study, is that experienced teachers toting more than 175 sick days simply choose against stockpiling further. Another possibility, suggested by Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers & School-Related Personnel (a teachers union), is that a few outliers with prolonged illnesses could be throwing off the numbers. The district's Moore says the top third of the district's teachers missed no days in 2009–10, while the bottom third missed between 12 and 57.
The tweaks the administration could make, as suggested by researchers who have studied teacher nonattendance, seem simple: Keep better track of teacher absences and pay teachers at the end of the year for unused sick days rather than at the end of their careers.
In a district facing disaccreditation, any relationship between teacher absences and student success matters. The Southwest teacher puts it starkly: "Hard work is the only thing that's going to get them [students] out of their situation. They need a teacher to push them to do that, and they can't do that when they're not there."