Published Online: November 3, 2008
Published in Print: November 5, 2008, as Analysis Tracks Teachers’ Use Of Discretionary Leave Time

Analysis Tracks Teachers’ Use of Discretionary Leave Time

New study examines four years of data from large urban district.

Like professionals in other fields, teachers appear to be dipping into their sick time in order to take care of errands, do the holiday shopping, or extend a weekend, a new analysis of a district’s teacher-absence pattern suggests.

Teachers in the unnamed, large urban district studied were more likely to take “discretionary absences”—either personal days off or sick days attributed to short-term illnesses—right before winter and summer vacations, and on Mondays and Fridays, according to the analysis, released Oct. 24 by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.

Teacher absence is correlated with a small but significant decrease in student achievement, and it tends to occur disproportionately in low-income schools. It is also costly: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics put expenditures on substitute teachers at about $4 billion annually—costs typically borne by individual schools’ discretionary budgets.

Frequency of Absences

Researchers broke down the number of absences that 5,189 teachers in 106 schools took from the 2001-02 through the 2004-05 school years in one Northern urban district.

The pattern detailed in the analysis suggests that teachers exercise “some amount of volition or control ... in the placement of those absences,” said Raegen T. Miller, a senior policy analyst with the center and the analysis’ author.

Armed with better information on those patterns, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can craft incentive programs to keep teachers in school, it concludes.

The study comes as a burgeoning number of districts toy with such incentive programs. ("Districts Experiment With Cutting Down on Teacher Absence," April 30, 2008.)

Mr. Miller examined four years of data from a Northern urban district, including the dates and the “excuse codes” for 130,000 absences taken by 5,000 teachers.

The discretionary absences made up 56 percent of all teacher absences. And while percentages of nondiscretionary absences, including long-term illnesses, jury duty, and bereavement, stayed relatively stable over the course of the school year, the percentage of discretionary absences changed seasonally. Absences rose throughout the fall and peaked in December. They fell in January and February, only to rise again by the end of the school year. Discretionary absences were also more likely than other types to fall on Mondays and Fridays.

Observers suggested that individual schools and districts establish different norms and cultures around teacher absenteeism. At a panel discussion on the paper, held Oct. 24 in Washington, Kaya Henderson, the deputy chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, said that central-office administrators and local principals traditionally haven’t enforced policies penalizing teachers for missing class.

“When other teachers see [these lax procedures], it sends a signal that it’s OK not to be there,” Ms. Henderson said.

Policy Levers

Changing those dynamics can be difficult, given the complex mix of policies that govern leave issues.

State laws frequently guarantee teachers a set number of days they can take off. More generous policies can tie districts’ hands in setting policies to discourage absenteeism, Mr. Miller said. Ohio, for instance, requires that teachers be given 15 days of paid sick leave. Teachers who use all those days could be absent for almost a tenth of the school year, Mr. Miller noted.

In other cases, teachers earn extra days of discretionary leave or can access additional time off through their negotiated contracts.

The District of Columbia’s contract, Ms. Henderson said, guarantees teachers 15 days of sick and personal days. But sick time can be carried over from year to year, and teachers who have exhausted their own days can borrow from a common “bank” of sick time. Under such policies, Ms. Henderson recounted, one teacher called in absent 72 times—or more than a third of the district’s instructional days.

But the contract-negotiation process also offers venues for crafting effective incentives to keep teachers in schools and minimize abuses of leave policies, argued John Mitchell, the director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

In Rochester, N.Y., he noted, the contract permits the district to “buy back” veteran teachers’ unused discretionary off days once they have accumulated 150 of them. And in Cleveland, the contract spells out policies for dealing with suspected abuses of leave policies.

“We’d all like to have Cal Ripken as the teacher who shows up every day, but that’s not the real world,” said Mr. Mitchell, referring to the major-league baseball player who holds the record for consecutive games played.

The analysis also urges that the federal government require districts to make available information on teacher-absence patterns on the report cards issued under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Mitchell argued that such information could cause parents to misinterpret the causes of teacher absence, including poor working conditions and even the likelihood of greater instances of teacher illness in schools with low-income students who lack access to high-quality health care.

Teacher absences, he contended, can also be a sign that teachers are struggling to be effective and need additional assistance.

Ultimately, Ms. Henderson summarized, improving the culture of teacher absenteeism requires coordination among school leadership, district policies, and teacher professionalism. “At the end of the day,” she said, “our first responsibility, as professionals, is to show up.”

Vol. 28, Issue 11, Page 6

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