The Columbus Dispatch
Adults to blame for teacher shortage
I first became interested in this issue in early 2019, when analyzing detailed state data on teacher attendance. The numbers were shocking.
In a third of Columbus schools, the average teacher missed more days of schools than the average student. In a handful of buildings, nearly a third of teachers were out for more than a month of the school year.
The teachers' union offered a series of excuses that did not hold up.
First, union leaders argued absences were due to teachers — disproportionately women — taking time off to take care of their own sick children. But leave-taking was most common among older teachers, unlikely to have schoolaged kids, and no greater among female than male teachers.
Second, they blamed terrible working conditions, although buildings with the worst teacher attendance issues scored no lower on the union's own annual survey of teacher satisfaction.
Later, I received even more disturbing data. Not only were teachers routinely out — especially on Fridays — but their classrooms often went unstaffed during these absences. Most disturbingly, Columbus schools enrolling a higher share of Black and lower-achieving students were least likely to receive substitute coverage when their teachers were absent.
Many others tried to raise alarm as well. An external human resources audit, completed last year, reported that “multiple interviewees indicated that very generous district attendance policy allows employees to take a high number of days off with no consequences.”
When another group of outside observers made their site visits in December 2019 to complete a district curriculum audit, they were surprised to find classrooms with no teacher or substitute, with students shuffled to other classes where they were “doing busy work at their desks or doing games on computers.” A district administrator told the observers that, “on a given day in some buildings we could have three or four classes without substitutes.”
Among their recommendations, the audit team urged the development of an action plan “to achieve substitute coverage to provide continuity of instruction in a teacher's absence” — a recommendation that, as we are seeing now, clearly remains unimplemented.
Superintendent Talisa Dixon initially seemed serious about addressing the teacher attendance issues. As part of the teachers' union contract signed in 2019, both sides agreed to establish an attendance advisory committee to analyze attendance trends and recommend policy improvements.
The committee was due to submit its report by June 2020, but when I requested a copy, a district spokeswoman told me via email, “The committee was formed and the work started, however, due to the pandemic, the committee disbanded and the work with the labor partners shifted focus to meet critical organizational needs in response to the pandemic.”
That is too bad.
Clearly, teacher attendance and substitute shortages have become critical chokepoints standing in the way of inperson learning.
Perhaps if the district had seriously tackled these issues when it had the chance, more Columbus children would be back in the classroom today.
Vladimir Kogan is an associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University. His research focuses on education policy and state and local politics.