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Absent Teachers Cost Schools Billions Yearly

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The nation's school systems are spending billions of dollars each year in costs to replace teachers who are absent from school, according to a recent national survey and interviews with school officials familiar with the subject. One expert on the topic puts the total cost at as high as $5 billion.

Moreover, the interviews suggest that a majority of school districts do not have a teacher-absentee policy, and that many school administrators and school board members are not aware of the extent or cost of the problem.

"An absenteeism culture has developed in the schools," says James Lewis Jr., an educational consultant who has led workshops on the issue for two years for school administrators. "But it is treated by most school systems, if at all, with a Band-Aid mentality."

The following statistics suggest the magnitude of the teacher-absenteeism problem:

A survey of 470 school districts released several months ago by the Educational Re6search Service (ers), a non-profit information and research organization supported by a variety of school-administrator groups, found that during the 1978-79 school year the districts surveyed paid an average of $260 per teacher in substitute fees, while the average number of days absent per teacher due to all paid absences was eight.

Increase in Absenteeism

A study of approximately 25 percent of Pennsylvania's school districts by the state's school board association several years ago found a 44-percent increase in teacher absenteeism in the nine-year period from 1968-69 to 1977-78.

According to the ers survey, an average of 4.3 percent of a district's teachers were absent each day during the 1978-79 school year, while Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that the absenteeism rate for all United States full-time wage-earners has remained at about 3.5 percent over the last several years. (Experts agree that the best attainable absentee-ism rate in any workplace is 2 percent.)

Among individual school systems, Detroit spent $6.5 million on substitute teachers during the 1980-81 school year, Newark spent $2.9 million, Omaha spent $645,000, and Milwaukee spent $2.7 million. School districts in New York State, according to a recent survey, spent $46 million on substitutes in the same year.

Most observers agree that although the problem of teacher absenteeism varies from district to district, it has intensified in recent years. There is also general agreement among observers that the increase can be tied to increased pressures on teachers.

"There are more demandss on teachers than ever before," says Paul B. Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Many teachers have become demoralized."

"Teachers, especially in inner-city schools, are under a lot more stress today," adds James G. Ward, director of research for the 575,000-member American Federation of Teachers (aft). "If you know that you face the possibility of being assaulted, you are less likely to go to school." Mr. Ward disputes the assertion that absenteeism is a problem in most school districts.

Others suggest that more lenient school-district leave policies also contribute to the rise in teacher absences.

'Direct Correlation'

"There is a direct correlation," says Mr. Lewis, "between the number of leave days allowed and the absentee rate; the greater the numbers of days allowed, the higher the absentee rate." He and others say, however, that in many states state legislatures require school districts to grant certain numbers of leave days.

Most school districts around the country grant teachers between 10 and 12 paid leave days per year.

A variety of other factors seem to play an important role in absentee rates. For example, the ers survey found that higher rates were found among large, urban districts; in high-paying districts; among elementary-school teachers; and in districts where teachers are not required to speak directly to an administrator about an absence.

Many also agree that the lack of teacher-absenteeism programs and a general insensitivity to the problem on the part of many administrators have also contributed to the growth of the problem.

Few Have Procedures

The ers survey found that only 18.4 percent of the school districts surveyed had established procedures for penalizing teachers with poor attendance records, and still fewer, 7.9 percent, had programs for recognizing teachers with good attendance records.

"I'm sure there are many districts that have a problem [with teacher absenteeism] but do not recognize it," says Arch S. Brown, executive director of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators.

Mr. Lewis puts it more bluntly: "There is widespread inattention to and ignorance of the problem on the part of superintendents and school-board members. Very few of them have established standards for their teachers and very few keep track of teacher-attendance records."

Mr. Lewis and others also assert that those administrators who do tackle the problem of teacher absenteeism too often use ineffective methods.

Punishment Unsuccessful

"Punitive plans do not work very well," says Mr. Brown of the school personnel organization. "Those with incentive plans for good attendance work best; but there are not as many of them as there should be.''

Mr. Ward of the aft adds: "School officials are working to limit absences rather than looking at the causes of the problem; they are only treating symptoms."

The costs of absenteeism can be considerable, most observers agree.

The nationwide average expensefor substitutes is roughly $30 per day; however, in some districts the cost is much higher. In Detroit, for example, the cost is $67.80 per day.

Also, Mr. Lewis estimates that if the "real" costs of teacher absenteeism--including administrative time, insurance, telephone bills--are calculated, the costs to school districts would be five times higher than the cost of substitutes alone.

Student Babysitting

Others note that rising teacher absenteeism rates also reduce the amount of instructional time for the students of the absent teacher, because in many situations substitutes are called on to merely "baby-sit'' for students.

Some school districts are trying innovativeways to combat teacher absenteeism. For example, teachers in the Houston Independent School District who miss less than five days of school in a year are eligible for pay bonuses of up to $3,500.

Some districts have begun programs in which teachers can win extra leave through good attendance records.

Paid on Retirement

Other districts, such as the Roanoke Public Schools and the Great Falls School District in Great Falls, Mont., pay teachers on retirement for accumulated sick leave.

However, Mr. Lewis contends that such "long term" incentives are ineffective and that many school districts prohibit teachers from accumulating large amounts of sick leave.

"What's needed," he says, "is a yearly incentive plan. If you pay a bonus to teachers with good records three weeks before Christmas every year, you are going to have some impact."

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