Most discussions about school attendance focus on students. Now, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to talk about teachers.
Duncan has made teacher attendance one of the measures to determine which low-achieving schools receive federal improvement funds. So, for the first time, the federal government will collect data on how many days teachers miss classes each year.
The reason is simple: Research shows that students suffer a small, but significant decline in academic performance as a result of teacher absences.
In addition, the nation’s public schools pay a big price — as much as $4 billion a year according to the National Center for Education Statistics — to hire substitutes to fill in for absent staff.
When he was CEO of Chicago public schools, Duncan was dismayed to discover that the system was spending more than $10 million a year on substitute teachers. He tangled with the teacher unions when he added teacher attendance data to school scorecards.
“This is important to parents,” Duncan said at the time. “There’s never been a spotlight on this, and that’s a mistake. I think it’s like any workplace. When people feel good about the work, people want to be there. This is not only important for student learning, it’s important to school culture.”
As one of the leading researchers on the impact of teacher absences on achievement, Raegen T. Miller, associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress, applauds the new emphasis on teacher attendance.
Patterns of high absences within a school can be a marker of deeper problems. “Controlling for age and other factors, there are still wildly different patterns that tell you about the professional culture in the school building. The Department of Education really gets this,” says Miller.
In his research, Miller found that public school teachers are absent between nine and 10 days per year on average.
Between kindergarten and 12th grade, that means a student is taught by someone other than the regularly assigned teacher for the equivalent of two-thirds of a school year, he says.
Every 10 absences lowers mathematics achievement by the same amount as having a teacher with one year to two years of experience instead of a teacher with three years to five years of experience, says Miller.
In his analysis, Miller found that most teacher absences — 56 percent — were discretionary, meaning they were either short-term sick days or personal days.
Those days often fell on Mondays, Fridays and before vacation breaks, suggesting that teachers were deliberate in the days they chose to stay home from work. (Nondiscretionary absences would include a family death, long-term illnesses or jury duty.)
That’s led Miller to advocate for public disclosure of teacher absences so that the public is aware of patterns within schools, patterns that may undermine student achievement.
Miller also says states should look at leave policies that may be overly generous or that encourage teachers to take off time.
“There is no question that a ton of resources are devoted to paying teachers when they are not there,” Miller says. “In some states, the statute provides for 10 days a year. In other states, it is nearly twice as much.” (Georgia gives 12.5 days per year.)
Many leave policies reflect political concessions.
“In years where there is no money for a raise, just to get people to go away from the table, the administration is likely to throw people another sick day . Or it may be the Legislature throwing out another day rather than more money,’’ says Miller. “But when teachers get paid leave for 10 percent of the school year, it’s probably excessive.”
Miller advises local systems to consider incentives to reduce teacher absences.
Teacher absence rates are about three times those of managerial and professional employees, a fact that teachers attribute to the health risks of working with children. Because the profession remains largely female, Miller says absences are often linked to child care needs.
Because teacher attendance data is not published, there’s little information about how often teachers miss school in Georgia. An exception is Cobb County where a school system official recently studied the question.
For her graduate work at Kennesaw State University, Mary Finlayson, investigations manager for the Cobb system’s human resources department, examined absences in the county and the impact on students.
Her 37-page study, “The Impact of Teacher Absenteeism on Student Performance: The Case of the Cobb County School District,” contains these findings:
-While the national average is 10 days, Cobb teachers are out of the classroom an average of 14 days per year.
-Cobb spent $8.5 million to hire substitutes to fill in for 6,800 classroom teachers and clinic nurses in the 2008-2009 school year. The system had only budgeted $4.6 million for subs.
-Students in lower-income areas experienced more teacher absences.
An analysis of third-grade CRCT scores in Cobb supported the national research that higher teacher absenteeism led to lower math scores.
In her report, Finlayson echoes the conclusions of most national researchers:
“From experience, I have learned that if employee attendance is allowed to become a problem in a school, it will affect other employees who also begin to take time off work. There needs to be an awareness of how pervasive this problem might be and consistency among all schools about what is expected from teachers and staff.”