Published Online: June 16, 1999
Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as Urban Education

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Tackling Absenteeism: A study on teacher absenteeism in Broward County, Fla., has found that teachers are most often away from their classrooms in the district's poorest schools. As schools' percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunches climbs, so does the likelihood of teacher absence.

A team of researchers in the heavily urban district used data from the 1997-98 school year to look at the frequency, causes, and costs of teacher absences. They found that the most common reason for teachers to be out of their classrooms was not illness but professional development. Roughly 27 percent of teachers missing class are involved in some sort of work training; 26 percent of absences are due to illness; 9 percent are out for personal reasons; 5 percent miss class due to family illness; and the remainder are for other reasons such as jury duty, according to the study.

Some 20 percent of classes led by substitute teachers are the result of teacher vacancies, the study found. And officials of the 230,000-student district said they suspected--though the data haven't yet been broken down by school--that unfilled teaching jobs were a particular problem for the district's poorest schools.

Carmen Varela-Russo, an associate superintendent for the district, said absenteeism study is part of a long look the district is taking at factors that affect achievement. She said officials there may use the data to set new policies for professional development and teacher vacancies. "It's an exciting first step of many steps," she said. "We have a strong accountability system in place, and we want to move the system forward."

"This is a beginning look at the data," said Broward school board member Julie S. Budnick, who requested the study. "We need to look at rates school by school and area by area, and compare them with standardized-test scores."

And while Ms. Budnick said she is an ardent supporter of staff development, she said the fact that teachers are trained most often during school hours is a problem, especially if the data bear out a relationship between poor school performance and high teacher absenteeism.

Union officials, meanwhile, say there is little ground for the argument that teachers' professional-development time undercuts students' progress. And they say there's no other reasonable time for such training than during the school day.

"Teachers already tie up three to four nights a week with paperwork," said Maureen Dinnen, the president of the Tallahassee-based Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association. "Can schools really ask for a series of weekends, too?"

--Kerry A. White kwhite@epe.org

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Page 11

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