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One State’s Journey to Fewer Teacher Absences

Human Resources


Rhode Island: a state known for its gorgeous coastline, diminutive size and… teacher absences?

Since the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published its Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools report in September, there has been plenty of talk about the state’s high teacher absenteeism rates. And there’s no debating that the numbers are high.

  What the Numbers Say

Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute indicates that in Rhode Island, K-12 employees requiring a substitute had an average of 20.12 absences during the 2016-17 school year — significantly above the national average of 11.73 absences per employee. 

Those high absence rates aren’t evenly distributed, with only 15 percent of Rhode Island educators having perfect attendance during the 2016-17 school year.

To be clear, that number does include all reported employee absences, including those for administratively approved reasons such as professional development and field trips. But in Rhode Island, only 8 percent of absences are for professionally related reasons, compared to 17 percent nationally.

That begs the question — why are Rhode Island teachers absent so frequently compared to their counterparts in other states? It seems to depend on whom you ask.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests that high absences rates are due to teachers in traditional school districts taking advantage of “the generous leave policies and myriad job protections that are enshrined in state law and local collective bargaining agreements.” However, the author admits the limitations of the study via a disclaimer that “because this study is descriptive, it can highlight revealing patterns in rates of teacher chronic absenteeism, but it cannot establish a causal relationship between any specific policy or factor and absenteeism.”

Meanwhile, the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teacher and Healthcare Professionals believe that the age of the workforce, maternity leave and other variables have much to do with the state’s high absence rates, and are quick to point out that the Fordham study did not take these into consideration.

 What RIDE Is Doing

In any case, all those absences add up to a lot of lost instructional time and high substitute costs. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has responded by targeting teacher absenteeism as an area of focus. The state’s Equity Plan from 2015 states that ineffective staff management is a root cause of inequitable access to teachers. They proposed a strategy to “collect and analyze educator attendance data” and reinforced this policy by creating a Teacher Attendance Task Force intended to gather information on how school districts document teacher attendance. This commitment to making an impact on teacher absence rates was further strengthened by including chronic teacher absenteeism as an indicator in the Rhode Island Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) State Plan.

Going forward, RIDE will include data on chronic teacher absenteeism, defined as being absent more than 10 percent of the school year. That’s far more generous than the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of 10 or more absences in a school year. The state also plans to analyze employee absenteeism data at the school level to “support meaningful differentiation of schools” and allow the data to be included in state, LEA and school report cards.

Megan Geoghegan, the Communications Officer at RIDE, says:

“We started to collect teacher absence data and will begin publicly reporting it as part of our school report cards under ESSA. In addition to being publicly reported, teacher absenteeism will be included as a metric in the school accountability system. We believe that including both teacher and student absence metrics in our accountability system underscores the critical importance of attendance, and provides transparent data for families in order to paint a more complete picture of school culture and climate. By collecting and acting upon this data, we hope to have a better understanding of why educators may be absent, and what supports we can put in place to mitigate chronic absence.”

 A Lesson for Everyone

So far, Rhode Island is the only state to include teacher absences as an indicator in its ESSA plan and commit to tracking teacher absences in order to strategically reduce their impact on instructional time. However, they’re unlikely to remain alone in that regard, as research continues to show how teacher absences negatively impact student achievement. Rhode Island is blazing a path toward improved student learning by tracking both teacher and student absences, and holding themselves accountable in gathering that data.

About Annie Grunwell

Education Writer

Annie is a Content Marketing Specialist at Frontline Education with a deep and abiding love of learning, writing, and sharing knowledge.