Adi Talwar

P.S. 42 Claremont Community School in the Bronx has one of the lowest rates of chronic teacher absences in the borough. Only 2.5 percent of its teachers missed 10 or more days of school in the 2015-2016 school year. Some 41 Bronx schools posted chronic absence rates of 30 percent or more. Check out the interactive charts at the end of this story.

This is the first article in a five-part series.

Near 2013’s end, as New York City prepared to inaugurate Bill de Blasio as the city’s next mayor, the New Settlement Apartments’ Parent Action Committee released a scathing report on how the Bloomberg administration (and past administrations) failed school communities like those found in District 9 in the Bronx (which includes neighborhoods like Mount Eden, Tremont, Claremont and Morris Heights) and challenged the incoming administration to succeed where others had failed.

Parent advocates decried the ways in which the district’s schools had been shortchanged; achievement gaps on ELA exams with the rest of the city had fallen only two percentage points in 12 years, according to the report, with the report noting that seven of the lowest 21 neighborhoods in terms of college-readiness rates were located in the district. “Improving struggling schools both in the Bronx and citywide will not be easy,” the report read, “but is necessary work to close the achievement gap and recommit to the principle of equity in public schools.”

The focus on fixing the problem fell partly on teacher quality. The next year, the Parent Action Committee partnered with the New Teacher Center to build mentorship programs for teachers in schools in the district. The purpose of the programs was not just to help teachers get better in the classroom. It was to help them stay there. According to Thandi Center, the NTC’s Senior Director in New York City, parents were constantly stymied and frustrated by the profound impact teacher turnover and shortages were having on the district’s schools and students.

“It feels like you’re bleeding teachers,” she says. “That churn and constant turnover has a significant toll on young people and their sense of trust in a system meant to serve them.”

District 9 is not alone. Across the city, state and nation, students deal with missing teachers every day. It’s a multifaceted problem whose impact on school performance is often overlooked in the debates about education policy, and it is a problem that affects different schools, districts and student communities in disproportionate and inequitable ways.

Teachers can be missing from the classroom for numerous reasons. In addition to turnover and teacher attrition (when a teacher leaves a school or leaves the profession altogether, respectively), shortages in qualified applicants in certain subject areas can leave certain positions perennially difficult to fill, resulting in unmanageable class sizes and learning gaps. Funding disparities can also make it harder for schools to take on more experienced, higher-salaried educators. Some schools may also face higher than average rates of day-to-day absenteeism among their teachers.

Decision-making by teachers is not the real source of the problem. Teacher absenteeism, for instance, can be for legitimate reasons: Teachers work long hours and are under constant stress, working in close contact with children and co-workers in settings that can make it easier for illness to spread, and teachers are not typically absent more than full-time employees in other professions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And teacher turnover can reflect rational choices: It may be better for some teachers to leave a school or the profession instead of operating in a toxic professional environment, or if their skills do not match what’s needed in the classroom.

The problem is the impact these moves have on students, especially when intertwined with other long-standing stressors. Together, they can leave schools, other teachers and students in a precarious position, according to Thomas Hatch, a Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST); he stressed that tracking absenteeism, for example, was not inherently meant to be a scorecard on teachers.

“(Teachers) do have rights and expectations to be out for whatever it is, but the issue is what’s the impact on kids?” he says. “At the end of the day we have to make sure every child and every school has the opportunity to develop a relationship with one adult or more and make sure they are getting what they need.”

Issues like turnover are by no means unique to New York City. According to to a recent report from Learning Policy Institute, “[E]ach year schools nationwide must hire tens of thousands of teachers as a result of beginning and mid-career teachers leaving the profession.”

New York’s track record touts big numbers masking inequities

New York City data on teacher absenteeism and turnover seems promising at first glance, but advocates caution the top-level numbers can mask disquieting inequities between schools, districts and student populations.

A 2014 National Council on Teacher Quality report found that New York City teachers had a fairly low average of days absent (8.80), and a low rate of chronically absent teachers (7.43 percent). A March 2018 report from the Rockefeller Institute of State Government on the New York State teacher workforce found the state does not have a teacher shortage, with no growing gap between the number of teachers and public school students (in fact, the report found that student-teacher ratios fell in New York City between 2011 and 2016). Teacher turnover rates have fallen in the state, in contrast to a rise nationwide.

But this can mask differences between schools and districts, particularly in staff shortages and turnover rates, according to Jim Malatras, the Rockefeller Institute’s president and a co-author of the report on New York’s teacher workforce.

“The overall numbers aren’t bad,” he says. “We’ve actually had an uptick of teachers. But the problem is it masks the larger inequities.”

About half of New York City teachers who leave the profession each year do so by resignation as opposed to retirement. (This reflects national trends: Teacher attrition accounts for about 90 percent of annual teacher demand, according to that August 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute. But “less than a third of national teacher attrition is due to retirement,” the report reads).

In New York City, teacher turnover has declined in the past decade, but this also masks inequities between different areas of the city; in Staten Island’s District 31, the total turnover rate for teachers is 9 percent, compared to District 12 in the Bronx, with a turnover rate of 26 percent (the turnover rates for teachers with less than five years’ experience, as well as in the city’s charter schools, climb even higher).

It is clear that teacher absenteeism and turnover carry financial burdens: A Center for American Progress report found that U.S. school districts spend more than $4 billion annually to cover substitute costs and administrative needs in the event of an absent teacher, while the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that teacher turnover and attrition costs the nation approximately $2.2 billion annually.

However, teacher turnover and absentee rates, particularly when inequities between schools are involved, are indicative of deeper challenges facing teachers in challenging environments. Some new educators will undoubtedly find that they are not suited for the profession, but are systemic issues leading more teachers to be missing from New York City classrooms than needed?

“We need to figure out how to find, recruit and support teachers, and then need to make sure they’re effective and keep them there. If we’re rushing people into shortage areas, that can lead to less effectiveness, which can lead people to be unhappy and which can lead to absences,” Hatch told City Limits. “There’s a whole constellation of issues.”

In this series, City Limits focuses on how this “constellation of issues” manifests in the five boroughs. We’ll look at how turnover is more prevalent in certain areas throughout the city and state, and we’ll investigative how a funding formula intended to increase equity between schools may make it more difficult for schools to hire experienced, higher-salaried teachers. We’ll look at the shortage areas in the schools dedicated to working with students with significant special needs, and we’ll analyze data from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to catalog the number of frequently absent educators at every school in New York City.

There are preliminary indications that the work New Teacher Center is doing in several districts throughout the city is having an impact; students are seeing up to six months of learning gains in math, and new teachers are more skilled at assessing and engaging students. In District 9, educators who received the New Teacher Center mentoring model remained in their schools at a rate of 91 percent in 2015, compared to 72 percent of teachers who did not benefit from the mentoring program. At the end of the second year, the rates were 85 percent in 2016 to 63 percent, respectively. In District 12, the first-to-second year retention rate was 80 percent to 71 percent.

Some of these issues are also receiving increased scrutiny in the past week after the announcement of a proposed contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers set to take effect in February of next year and run through 2022. Central to the new contract is a series of initiatives encouraging teachers to work (and stay working) in NYC schools and districts that face pernicious rates of teacher turnover. In the coming months, Chancellor Richard Carranza will be able to select as many as 180 schools that can offer teachers a salary increase for hard-to-fill positions. The program will target schools in the Bronx, along with schools citywide confronting particularly high attrition rates.

“We have a holistic strategy to support our educators, and have made unprecedented investments in teacher training and leadership programs,” DOE Spokesperson Doug Cohen told City Limits. “Our new teachers contract advances equity in our historically underserved schools, increases salaries for all UFT members, and brings new and innovative resources to support our teachers and students.”

Center expressed optimism about the city’s effort to address the problem via the new contract, and stressed that any professional development and assistance that can be brought to bear must be supportive of educators’ belief in the potential to assist their students.

“The number one thing we’re trying to convince new teachers is that they can and will positively impact children and their learning and experience of schooling,” she says. “If this plan is really about doubling down on teachers, and recruiting, retaining and developing teachers, it has to be about this mindset.”

This series was made possible through a grant by Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION).