The Teacher Absenteeism Hype – And How Districts Should Respond

Teacher Absences & Subs

Billions spent on substitutes. Up to 50% teacher absenteeism in Rhode Island. Reduced student achievement.

Ever since the media got a hold of newly released data on teacher absenteeism, these kinds of statements are prompting raised eyebrows and tough questions from the public.

But is it the whole story? And how do districts need to respond?

The Hype Around Teacher Absenteeism

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights turned the attention onto teacher absences in 2012 with its collection of data on the subject, but it was the November 2012 report by Raegan Miller of the Center for American Progress (CAP) that really kicked up the heat.

“This report seeks to draw attention to the too long-neglected subject of teacher absence,” Raegan Miller states in the report. “The costs of teacher absence, both in financial and academic terms, can no longer be borne in silence.”

Shortly after, the topic was picked up by major news outlets, including USA Today.

The articles highlighted a number of alarming statistics based on the 2009-2010 school year. Things like:

–  36% of teachers (on average) were absent more than 10 days
–  Nationwide, substitute teachers cost $4 billion a year
–  Absences are notably higher in schools serving more minority students
–  5.3% of teachers are absent at a district on any given day
–  Absenteeism has risen from 2010 to 2012

Graph: The top states with the highest absence ratesThe top states with the highest absence rates

The research points out several findings that hint at abuse of absenteeism:

–  Absences are higher on Mondays and Fridays
–  Absences often occur in short periods that do not require medical documentation
–  Absenteeism has increased as the economy has improved, possibly related to increased job security
–  New teachers take less absences — indicating possible abuse of sick leave by more secure teachers

The new research has raised flags for some districts. At a recent board meeting for a large district in Rhode Island, absenteeism was the topic of discussion (Rhode Island ranked worst in the nation, with an average of 50% of teachers absent more than 10 days). Finance board members, after seeing the CAP study, questioned the amount being spent on substitutes and the estimated 24,000 lost learning days for students.

“I thought the number was staggering,” a board member said. “This has to be addressed.”

These facts and statistics certainly demand attention. Districts can’t let discretionary spending run rampant. But, as we all know, every story has two sides.

The Other Side of the Story

Soon enough stories started to trickle in with some interesting observations.

A follow-up article on the Rhode Island district gave the teachers a chance to respond and they viewed the absences as anything but discretionary. Instead, teachers revealed that they are out of the classroom primarily for district- and state-mandated professional development often tied to the Race to the Top or the Common Core.

One elementary school teacher said she has been out of her classroom 13 days this year for curriculum training and RTI meetings. She has taken 1 1/2 personal days to prepare report cards and zero sick days.

Another elementary teacher said she has taken just one sick day this year.

“I’m not aware of any teacher that abuses sick time,” she said. “We are all too invested in the work that is happening in our classrooms.”

Follow-up articles also revealed that the absenteeism numbers included:

–  Maternity Leave
–  Military Leave
–  Jury Duty
–  Funeral Leave
–  Long-Term Illnesses
–  Field Trips with Students
–  Curriculum Days
–  RTI Meetings
–  District Workshops

Digging into these absence types is what showed a Hawaii school district that the absenteeism bark was worse than its bite. Board members saw the national study, where Hawaii was reported as the second worst in the country, with teachers missing an average of 17 days and 26% of teachers taking 10 or more sick days.

Board members came to the meeting demanding answers on the high number of “sick days.” District officials returned with a detailed breakdown of the data, revealing that just 7 of the 17 reported absence days were actual “sick leave” and these sick days also included absences related to temporary disability insurance and workers comp. The other 10 days covered everything from funeral leave and jury duty to military leave and DOE-sponsored activities.

Their data showed that about 1,700 teachers never took any sick days and teachers on average used only about 10 of their 18 alloted sick days (which also function as paid time off).

“I’m pleased with the results,” the Human Resource Committee Chairman said after the presentation. “While we should monitor them, they don’t to me ring alarm bells.”

So Which Side is Right?

Actually, “Who’s right?” is not the important question to ask. Part of the job of every district is to respond to the inquiries of its board members and the public, so the real question is, “Do we have the data we need?”

School districts like the one in Hawaii were able to show with detailed data that they were in fact responsibly managing teacher absences and substitute costs. If you can show how substitute costs are allowing for increased teacher development, which positively impacts student achievement, now you have a case to save your substitute budget from big cuts.

This kind of data requires diligent and accurate tracking of teacher absences, leave balances, substitute job assignments and specific absence reasons. Raegan Miller notes in his CAP study that many districts are using electronic absence management systems to capture this type of information.

In addition to tracking the data, here are other measures districts are taking to reduce the impact of discretionary absences:

–  Provide incentives for not taking sick days
–  Provide hand sanitizer at all schools
–  Review contractual sick day policies
–  Limit professional development to the summer
–  Require medical documentation for absences
–  Provide teachers with access to their leave balances
–  Track absences and follow up with potential issues
–  Hire full-time substitutes
–  Have other teachers cover for their absent peers
What do you think about the hype and how is your district handling absences?

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.