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What Does Sherlock Holmes Have to Say about Absence Management?

Teacher Absences & Subs

As the school year comes to a close, it’s time to focus on the fall. How can you make sure that classrooms aren’t empty when teachers are absent next year? How can you ensure that employee absences don’t get out of control?

The answer can be found in the story of a certain fictional detective and his dedication to data. Long before the phrase “data-informed decision-making” was ever uttered, Holmes expounded on the importance of using data as a foundation for his conclusions:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”

Now, you’re probably wondering what on earth that has in common with managing employee absences. Good question.

If you want to ensure that you have qualified substitutes filling in, you need to manage employee absences strategically. And to do that, you need data. In the words of our erstwhile detective: “‘Data! Data! Data!’ he cried impatiently. ‘I can’t make bricks without clay.'” Point being: You can’t make solid decisions without data, the same way you can’t build solid bricks without clay.

You’re in luck, because we — like a certain fictional detective — have a penchant for gathering and analyzing data. And we’re uniquely positioned to collect authentic data from the thousands of school districts using our absence and substitute management system across the country. In fact, our data comes from over 4,800 educational organizations and has been determined to be representative of all districts nationwide by the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education. We put that data to work with the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, and identified several valuable trends over the past several months.

Let’s take a look at what we learned over the past few months, and how you can use our findings to shape decisions for your own district.

What We Learned This Year

Absence Lead Times Impact Fill Rates

The further in advance your employee enters an absence, the more likely it is that you’ll find a substitute. As Holmes would say, “It is more than possible; it is probable.” Absences entered with one day of lead time or less saw fill rates at 74% of lower. But those submitted more than three days in advance saw fill rates over 90%.

Average absences chart

Absence Rates Rise in the Spring

As temperatures rose, so did employee absences. From January to April, absences per employee rose from an average of 1.58 to 1.64.

absences per employee bar chart

High Employee-Sub Ratios Mean Lower Fill Rates

In April, we saw the year’s employee-sub ratio peak at 2.78 employees per substitute.  This isn’t good news, as you can see from the graph below: districts with higher employee-sub ratios tend to struggle with lower fill rates.

Wondering what we mean by “employee-sub ratio”? This refers to the average number of employees requiring a sub, compared to the number of substitutes signed up to work in the district.

average employee-sub ratio bar chart

What You Can Do for Next Year

Strategic absence management can be tough. In fact, it’s just not elementary, my dear. But the summer comes with an opportunity to think about what these findings could mean for your district, and what you can do for the fall. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Promote Longer Lead Times

It’s inevitable that some absences will have short lead times: employees get sick, or have something unexpected come up. But other absences, like those for professional development or district-sanctioned activities, can be planned out well in advance.

To ensure that you have time to find the best substitute to cover the absence, encourage your employees to submit absence requests as far in advance as possible. That gives you time to find a substitute qualified to continue the classroom teacher’s lesson plan, and gives the substitute time to prepare as well.

Track Your Data

Here’s one last quote from our erstwhile detective. “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”

That goes for your district, too! The Frontline Research and Learning Institute pulls data from over 4,800 educational organizations, which means that our findings represent national norms. But to truly tailor your absence management strategy to your own district and have the greatest effect, you need to be able to report on your own district’s data.

Having easy access to your own data opens up a world of possibilities. Once you can see when (and why) employees are most likely to be out, you have the insights you need to take steps to reduce unnecessary absences wherever possible.

Want More?

In conclusion: data is great, and you need it to make the best decisions for your district. And if you’re looking for more, we’re happy to share our research with you at no cost. You can get the full April Absence Report from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute by filling out the form below.

Annie GrunwellAnnie Grunwell

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the teacher shortage and best practices in human capital management.