Teacher Absences Are Under Attack (Again)

Teacher Absences & Subs

What It Does and Doesn’t Mean For Your District

The teacher absenteeism issue never dies down for long before it’s back in the spotlight again.

Last year, it was the Center for American Progress’s report that pushed the issue into mainstream media. This time, it’s a new report from the National Center on Teacher Quality that has reignited the debate.

We can all agree that excessive teacher absences are never a good thing, whether it’s the cost to the district or the impact on students.

But how concerned should you be about the new report  and what steps should you take in your district?

The Newest Report on Teacher Attendance

Fueling the recent attention in the media is a report called “Roll Call: The Importance of Teacher Attendance,” put out by the National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

The study gathered data for the 2012-2013 school year from 40 of the largest urban school districts in the country representing more than 200,000 teachers. Long-term absences (more than 10 consecutive days) were not included, such as leave taken for serious illnesses or maternity/paternity leave.

Some of the findings in the report are troubling. For example:

— The average teacher missed 11 days out of 186 school days
1 in 6 teachers were “chronically absent” (missed 18+ days or about 10% of the school year)
44% of teachers missed more than 10 days (equivalent to one day every two weeks)
— Combined, the 40 districts spent $424 million on substitute teachers (average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences for the year)

Overall, the NCTQ study found that teachers were in the classroom 94% of the school year.

Average absence report

Teacher Absences in Mainstream Media

Startlingly, the rather narrow (and not entirely surprising) report results were picked up and widely disseminated by major and regional news outlets. Suddenly, everyone is talking about teacher absences again.

Nancy Waymack, an overseer of the NCTQ study, said the findings are important because of the impact on student achievement, which has been documented in other studies.

“When teachers are absent 10 days, the decrease in student achievement is the same difference between having a brand new teacher and one with two to three years’ experience,” she said.

The report’s authors also proposed that in relation to the time spent on other aspects of improving teacher quality, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

Given all the buzz around this issue just over a year ago (see our post from April 2013), it’s hard to see how this issue could be considered “overlooked.” Rather, it’s probably received more attention than ever in recent years and is frequently in the news.

As we all know, two people can look at the same data and draw vastly different conclusions. There are always two sides to every story  and one of those sides seems to get much less representation than the other.

A Difference of Opinion

Looking at the report, The American Federation of Teachers’ president, Randi Weingarten, said “an overall 94 percent attendance rate shows the extraordinary dedication of teachers across the country.”

Sometimes different people look at the same data and derive completely different insights!

While we’re not advocating excessive teacher absenteeism, we did, after evaluating the report, want to raise the question: Are the statistics so bad after all?

Consider the following:

The average teacher had 13 days available for short-term leave. That includes professional, sick and personal days. So in fact, by taking an average of 11 days, teachers are not even using the maximum days allowed by their contract.

Twenty percent of absences were for professional leave. These absences include professional development and activities required or authorized by the district, such as training on new curriculum and union negotiations. Another 9% were categorized as “other.”

Absences broken down by type

Teachers take, on average, 7-8 days for personal reasons or illness. If 30% of the 11 total days are for professional leave or other, you’re left with 7-8 absences over the course of the school year for sick and personal leave. Is that too many?

Many teachers contest that these “personal days” are often used to grade papers and catch up on other school-related work they simply can’t accomplish during the regular school week.

Others argue that, given their frequent exposure to sick children, it’s not a surprise that teachers catch illnesses more than professionals in other industries.

An equal percentage  16%  represents both chronically absent teachers and those with excellent attendance. The 16% of chronically absent teachers makes up approximately 1/3 of all absences. But 16% of teachers also miss 3 or fewer days. For many districts, that means for every teacher with a potential attendance problem, you have another teacher with excellent attendance. The rest fall somewhere in the middle.

These numbers actually display a very normal bell curve that you would see in statistical data of almost any kind. In any data set, you will have low and high performers, with the bulk in the middle. Teacher absences are no different.

Sixteen percent are chronically absent and sixteen percent have excellent attendance

The study covered just 40 districts in urban areas. The authors of the study themselves admit that many more factors could be in play that have yet to be explored, such as school climate, leadership and community involvement. All in all, 40 districts is not a large group from which to pull conclusions.

For example, the study explored poverty level and found that it had no impact on teacher absenteeism. Yet all of the district studies were in urban areas  already containing a higher than average proportion of high-poverty schools.

What the Report Means for Your District

As education writer Stephen Sawchuk points out in his article on the topic, “The report raises more questions than answers on this thorny issue.

Our mission isn’t to provide all the answers or to pick sides. But our goal is to help you navigate through the noise and determine what action steps are appropriate for your district.

Know Your Own Data

We can’t overemphasize this point. This study may or may not reflect the absence trends in your own district. Responding to questions about teacher absences and substitute spending requires diligent tracking of teacher absences.

If you are tracking your absences with an electronic absence management system, you can easily capture and report on the number of absences as well as the absences types and reasons.

Talk to Your Chronically Absent Teachers

Absences by the 16% of “chronically absent” teachers make up more than 1/3 of all absences reported, so this might be your biggest area for improvement.

Use your absence management system to identify employees who are struggling with attendance and then talk to them!

These efforts are proven to be most successful when done not as a “witch hunt,” but with a sincere effort to find out if teachers are struggling and how the school and district can better support their efforts and attendance in the classroom.

Create a Culture of Attendance

The NCTQ study found that absence policies did not significantly impact absenteeism (for example, offering incentives for not using absences). However, anectodal research supports the effectiveness of a strong school culture where attendance is encouraged.

In effective school cultures, the leadership sets an example of good attendance, teachers are treated with trust and respect, candid conversations take place when absence issues arise, and teachers are encouraged to work together with administrators to improve attendance.

Strengthen Your Substitute Pool

Absences do happen and may in fact be increasing in your district. Alongside your efforts to address teacher absences, also give some attention to your substitute pool.

With a rising shortage in substitutes, your district can take measures to attract and retain qualified subs to lessen the impact of absences on the classroom.

Take It All in Stride

Before your district comes under too much heat, remember that the report represents just 40 large urban districts; your district’s data probably was not included.

It’s important to watch national trends, but it’s more important to know your own performance.

Credits: All graphs are taken from the report by the National Center on Teacher Quality, “Roll Call: The Importance of Teacher Attendance.”

Additional Resources

Check out some of these articles for additional details and perspectives on the teacher absence issue.

Teacher-Attendance Rates Vary Greatly Across Large Districts, Report Finds. Stephen Sawchuk provides a good overview of the report’s findings on his EdWeek blog “Teacher Beat.”

End Teacher Absenteeism. Rishawn Biddle takes a strong stand against what he considers to be rampant teacher absenteeism on his blog, “Dropout Nation.”

Teacher Attendance and School Culture — Revisited. Principal Mel Riddile talks about the importance of school culture on curbing teacher absenteeism.

Allison Wert

Allison (Ali) Wert is the former Content Marketing Manager of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She has nearly 10 years' experience writing about education topics, including best practices for K-12 strategic human capital management. Under her leadership, the team at Frontline was recognized as the Winner of CMA's 2017 Project of the Year and Best Content Marketing Program.