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Too many assumptions cloud absentee issue

June 04, 1998

Bob Maginnis

Jumping to conclusions.

It's easy to do, and after reading Dave McMillion's story about teacher absences in Tuesday's Herald-Mail, many people assumed that teachers were taking advantage of the system. And many teachers, including some members of the Washington County Teachers Association negotiating team, assumed that the administration was looking for a way to undermine citizen support for a pay increase.

As usual, the issue is more complicated than it seems, and if there is blame to be assigned, it seems the administration is due some of it.

For example, administration officials said the year's highest teacher absentee rate was logged on April 30, when 151 teachers, or 12.5 percent of the county teaching staff, were not in the classroom.

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Given that the tolerable absentee rate for private industry is 5 percent, 12.5 percent looks bad, until you look at another factor.

On that day, approximately 67 local teachers were at a workshop on "guided reading," put on in Greenbelt, Md., by the Heineman Group, described by Jim Newkirk, the school system's language arts supervisor, as a national educational group that sponsors workshops across the U.S.

Newkirk told me Tuesday that such programs are seldom held in this region, and that when he saw it on the schedule last fall, he viewed it as a rare opportunity for teachers to get some first-rate training.

Guided reading, according to Newkirk, involves dividing a class into reading groups so that students can work alongside those who are at their level. Given that improved reading has been made a top priority by the elected school board, helping teachers do a better job in that area seems like a wise use of a day's time.

And lest anyone think that on that particular day, teachers just decided to take off and attend the workshop, that isn't so. Newkirk said that those who attended the workshop took professional development leave, which is approved by principals in advance, as opposed to sick leave.

Asked for her assessment of the situation, WCTA President Sharon Chirgott said she feels that if the scheduling of workshops and professional development sessions during school days isn't the total problem, it is a major contributor.

Those that put on workshops tend to schedule them on Thursdays and Fridays during those times of the year (like now) when they're not likely to be snowed out, Chirgott said.

But nothing can really be done until the board analyzes the reasons for absences system-wide, Chirgott said. And if teacher training is as important as the administration says it is, the board has to improve the way it schedules substitutes to cover for those in training. An automated substitute-calling system is scheduled to begin next year, Chirgott said, but Philip Ray, the system's human resources director, says that at present, the pool of substitutes is such that no more than 80 can be relied upon on any given day.

So the administration made two errors here, though it doesn't seem that either one was malicious. The first was that when confronted with an absentee rate that seemed unacceptable, Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr., began expressing alarm before digging into the reasons why teachers were absent on various days.

The second problem is that if certain workshops that take teachers out of the classroom are vital, they should be worked into the school calendar so that school is not in session on the days they're held.

Bartlett agreed with that idea when I spoke to him Tuesday, and said he had not meant to single out teachers as the sole cause of the problem.

A double-digit teacher-absence rate is unacceptable, he said, and if the administration is contributing to the problem, that must be addressed. It's something we must all work on together, he said. I agree, but the superintendent has to mend some fences on this issue first.

None of this touches the issue the teacher-absence story raised in my mind when I first read it Tuesday - the possibility that a combination of crowded classrooms, a large group of teachers with many years in the system and the recent movement to mainstream students with emotional or severe physical problems might be prompting more absences.

On May 29, The Herald-Mail reported the average class in Maryland is actually seven students larger than state figures indicate, so that the 15- to 19-student state average is really 22 to 29 students.

Asked if classroom crowding could be a factor in teacher absenteeism, WCTA's Chirgott said that an extraordinarily large class containing children with special needs could push a teacher to the point where "you need an occasional absence to get your head on straight."

But, she said, "We need to pull out that data and find out what's really going on."

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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