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August 8, 2005 [feather]
Where have all the teachers gone?

That's what the Indianapolis Star wants to know, and with good reason--absenteeism among Indianapolis public school teachers has reached astonishing levels, and the impact on students is predictably negative. According to the Star, on any given day last year, at least 14% of IPS' 39,000 students attended at least one class without a regular teacher teaching it. The district employed an average of 275 substitute teachers each day. On any given day last year, about 8.5% of regular IPS teachers were absent from their classes, an absentee rate that is higher than that in such cities as St. Paul, Seattle, Omaha, and Minneapolis, even though those are larger districts with more students. For comparative purposes, the piece notes that private sector firms experience a daily employee absentee rate of something like a 2.4%. IPS teachers missed an average of eleven days of work apiece last year. Add to this the facts that the district is suffering from a shortage of math and science teachers and that substitutes are in such demand that in order to qualify one need only pass a criminal background check and show that one has earned 60 college credits, and you've got a deeply disturbing picture of a failing school district.

The article cites poor working conditions, burnout, and an excessively generous leave policy (teachers get 11 to 13 personal days per year, and unused days accumulate from one year to the next) as factors in the teacher absenteeism that, studies have shown, is correlated with low test scores and a high dropout rate. The teachers unions are fighting to prevent incentives such as higher salaries for math and science teachers as well as for teachers willing to work in the dodgier schools.

The good news is that the Star is speaking up and refusing to let embarrassing and pressing issues drop. Since last spring, the paper has been running a series called "Left Behind" that documents how the state of Indiana doctors its sorry high school graduation rate to make it look better than it is; demonstrates how both urban and rural schools suffer from serious retention problems; details the particular plight of young black men, who drop out in disproportionate numbers; describes the impact of poor retention on the state economy; and urges community leaders to commence open, honest discussion about how to reverse a disheartening and destructive trend in the state's public education system.

Thanks to Rishawn Biddle for the tip.

posted on August 8, 2005 4:00 AM


I'm a central Indiana resident and this article, while appalling, unfortunately isn't surprising. At least, as you say, the article raises this issue of teacher absenteeism to the level of public awareness. But as a college prof around here, I can say the issue the article mentions has a long-term impact as these students who have experienced piecemeal instruction enter college.

Another bit of good news, which the Star article doesn't report, is that Indianapolis is a real innovator in the realm of charter schools. Indy is the only city in the country whose MAYOR has the authority to create charter schools -- in most places creating a charter school happens at the state government level. So Indy has the ability to create charters without the usual level of red tape, and the innovation appears to be paying off. I don't have any stats on charter schools here and the local MSM is reluctant to report anything but bad news about them, but I know from friends who work in charter schools that student learning is vastly improved and the buy-in from both the teachers and the parents is phenomenal. Some very good things are happening here with charters. I don't know if that article folded charter schools in with the general IPS system or not in calculating its stats.

We've also got some very good private high schools around here too (Cathedral HS, Covenant Christian, etc.) that not a lot of locals know about but which do an excellent job and where the teachers are 100% committed to student learning -- you won't see them take off the whole month of September because their lesson plans aren't ready!

Posted by: Robert at August 8, 2005 9:50 AM

This is what is to be expected, when each new outrage of mass failure is rewarded with more money for teachers. Progressive retardation receives such alluring incentives to intensify its destructiveness. The teachers in public schools have been allowed to acquire a guild socialist view, in which the school is to be run for their aggrandizement and leisure, and the students are to be regarded exploitatively as processable need units. The taxpayer is regarded as that which has no right even to speak of the aggression upon him. Aggression multiplies from the earlier rounds of aggression, and the use of it causes the school to become a vehicle of propaganda for freedom for aggression. Hitler said 'knowledge is ruin for my young men', and the government school becomes more and more conformable to that attitude.

Posted by: John S Bolton at August 8, 2005 2:51 PM

I love the phrase "processable need units," which captures well the combination of mushiness and ruthlessness which is so characteristic of today's public education.

Absenteeism is usually a sign of poor working conditions, as well as of weak supervision. I suspect that the increasing limitations on the abiity of teachers to throw troublemakers out of their classrooms have a lot to do with this problem.

Posted by: David Foster at August 8, 2005 4:15 PM

In Illinois there are not an excessive number of people who have gone throught the years long and very expensive teacher certification process, and only they can teach in the state (below the college level). Couple that with the power of the teachers' union (which dictates terms to the party that controls all branches of government) and the kids are certain to get screwed.

I suspect Indiana to be more employer oriented than Illinois (less union power and a more viable 2 party system), but it is likely only a matter of degree.

Posted by: krm at August 8, 2005 7:26 PM