By Brenda Ortega
I’m appalled, angry and saddened by recent news stories and editorials about teacher absences – bashing educators again – based on one nakedly faulty and politicized “study.”
Where do I begin? By pointing out the falsehoods and misrepresentations? Explaining why teachers need sick days? Shouting from the rooftops how the public must demand an end to political attacks that continue to drive dedicated educators out of the classroom?
In my last job as an English teacher, I asked my senior honors students to grapple with Jonathan Swift, the 18th-century political satirist who combined sharp wit and intellectual courage to challenge political corruption and dishonesty among the wealthy ruling class. Think Jon Stewart in 1700s Europe.
November marked Swift’s 350th birthday, yet much of his work remains applicable today. Here’s a Swift observation that is frighteningly relevant at the moment, first published in 1710 in his newspaper, The Examiner, emphasis mine:
“…as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”
Sadly, in the case of the Fordham Institute’s “Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools,” newspapers have been the fliers of falsehood over the last few months. Since September, national and local news outlets have breathlessly reported on the Fordham report with little mention of the organization’s political goals and no scrutiny of the report’s methods.
I also used to work in the newspaper industry, where I cut my professional teeth after college. Even at the small daily where my career began, I could not have written up a “study” without reporting its source nor delivered its conclusions without seeking expert commentary.
Fordham is an ultra-conservative organization dedicated to school privatization—and like many corporate “school reform advocates,” Fordham has labeled its propaganda arm a “think tank.” The report Fordham issued to the press smearing teachers for being absent was not peer reviewed. Unsurprisingly, it used shoddy methodology to arrive at indefensible conclusions.
That’s not just my opinion. An expert third-party review of the Fordham report – completed this month by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at University of Colorado – documents the report’s nearly global inadequacies.
According to the NEPC peer review: “The report lacks support for its major claims, ignores known discrepancies in data, uses cited resources in highly selective ways, ignores large bodies of contradictory research, and draws unwarranted conclusions.”
I don’t think there are many other ways to critique a so-called “study.” Yet this expert review of the Fordham study received no press attention. On the contrary, misinformed editorials have continued – including a Detroit News hit piece that has been reprinted elsewhere in the state.
The News’ editorial appeared two days after the NEPC’s scathing rebuke of Fordham’s methods and conclusions – yet the editorial board of the newspaper did not even mention it.
Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it. Here limps the truth:
The Fordham report concludes that frequent absent rates are lower in non-union charter schools and that union-bargained contracts for school employees are “at least partly” at fault. “The policy implication is that contractual benefits common in union contracts should be lessened and unions avoided where possible,” the NEPC review said.
In service to that argument, the Fordham report cites three studies related to teacher absenteeism – either overstating, selectively editing, or misrepresenting the facts and conclusions from all three.
In one, the Fordham report failed to mention the study’s conclusion that “the absentee rate for teachers is ‘not wildly out of line’ with other sectors and ‘should probably not be a cause for great concern’ except for schools and districts with persistently high rates—most often low-income schools where conditions may be especially stressful.”
In addition, the Fordham report’s authors presented sweeping conclusions despite “known discrepancies” in how source data was generated – for example, some entities included mandated professional development days in the absence data; others did not.
Perhaps most notable among the conveniently ignored facts cited in the NEPC review “is the well-documented and damaging problem of high teacher turnover in charter schools, which has been linked to high-stress working conditions and has prompted calls for improvements.”
Charter schools. You remember—those profit-making schools that Fordham prefers? I would venture a guess that teacher turnover is even more harmful than absences, but that discussion would get in the way of the organization’s anti-union, anti-public education agenda.
If you want to read a thorough evisceration of the teacher-bashing mentality that breeds a “study” such as the Fordham report, skim through the reader comments section of this editorial from The Times Herald of Port Huron.
The Times’ op-ed (in response to the Fordham report) suggested among other insipid and insulting observations that teachers should restrict birthing children to the summer time to avoid maternity leave.
In a guest column written in response, Cathy Murray, president of the Port Huron Education Association, invited the newspaper’s writers and editors to visit a classroom and to spend eight hours a day with 30 kids in an enclosed building. Preferably during flu season.
She wrote, “Parents sometimes send their sick kids to school because as you correctly point out, ‘they don’t get paid for sick time.’ Teachers do, and deservedly so given the fact that they must spend their day teaching these sick kids — which can lead to them getting sick as well.
Educators don’t take absences lightly. Creating substitute lesson plans and grading the work takes a lot of time, and many teachers drive those materials to work in wee morning hours while sick. And don’t overlook the fact that many districts mark teachers down in their evaluations for using sick days – even to receive treatment for serious illness or care for a sick family member.
Educators work long days, beginning well ahead of the first bell and often concluding after their families have gone to sleep. They do unpaid work grading papers over weekends and holiday breaks, and they do training, curriculum planning, and classroom setup during unpaid summer leave.
Those basic facts should go without saying, but they can’t anymore. Somehow, in the course of one generation, teachers went from being respected and valued citizens doing important work to lazy shirkers who need scripts and mandates and accountability to do their jobs.
And the charter cheerleaders who applauded the half-baked Fordham report on teacher absences are the same people pushing for students to lose at least three weeks of classroom time per year to standardized testing.
It’s no wonder why we have a teacher shortage nationally – one that’s only going to get worse in Michigan, as evidenced by a recent report from the Michigan Department of Education showing a staggering 62 percent drop in teacher credentials issued between 2004 and 2016.
I believe the American public is waking up to the truth behind efforts to privatize our public education system. It’s clear the decades-long campaign to discredit and demean the dedicated professionals in our classrooms is the Trojan horse that gets the profiteers inside the gates.
I asked at the beginning of this post: Where do I begin? But now I’m wondering… When will it end—and will the truth arrive in time?