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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teacher Absence, Leading Indicators, and Trust

By Guest Blogger — August 08, 2014 5 min read
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Note: Raegen Miller, the vice president for research partnerships at Teach For America, is guest posting this week.

Mozart said that music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them. Michelangelo said that sculpting David was simply a matter of chipping away the stone that didn’t look like David. What unites the two geniuses is their careful attention to both the presence and absence of a crucial ingredient, be it notes or marble. In education, we often hear that teachers are a crucial ingredient, and research shows that teachers are the most important school-based influence on student achievement.

And if teachers’ presence in the classroom matters so much, shouldn’t we pay more attention to teachers’ absences? Let’s look at three reasons to do so. First, the country spends billions of dollars per year on teacher absences. For example, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, the school system paid out $4.5 million to substitute teachers last year. This figure, which amounted to $2,259 per regular teacher, is real money, and Kanawha County isn’t particularly exceptional in this respect. Maybe every penny of this expenditure is required, but there’s probably a case, as my friends at Education Resource Strategies would say, for rethinking how schools allocate “people, time, technology and money” around the issue of teacher absences.

Actually, I’m sure there’s a case. I’ve jumped into the data, written research papers, and talked with practitioners and reporters about teacher absences for nearly a decade. Patterns in fine-grained absence data suggest that there’s room for teachers to adjust their leave-taking behavior, given a different set of incentives. This brings me to the second reason to pay more attention to teacher absences: research teams out of Columbia, Duke, and Harvard have come up with remarkably consistent evidence that teacher absences, irrespective of their motivation, have a negative, educationally significant impact on students’ academic achievement.

The third reason to pay more attention to teacher absences is the trickiest, but in my mind the most interesting. The idea is that the professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers. I wrote at length about this when I analyzed 2009-10 data from the Civil Rights Data Collection, a profoundly underused resource. These data included for the first time a measure of teacher absence, which the Department of Education deems a leading indicator of progress toward academic achievement for the reasons mentioned above.

The measure in question, the percentage of teachers in a school absent more than ten times during the year, is a little blunt. Two schools can look the same on this measure despite having quite different experiences with teacher absence, but it affords the only nationwide glimpse at the professional culture of schools through the prism of teacher absence. Moreover, the 2011-12 data span practically all schools, and eliminate ambiguity in the prior iteration of the survey around whether schools should exclude professional development-driven absences when compiling their percentages (they should).

Here’s what I found out during a brief dip into the data on 93,557 schools nested within 16,311 local education agencies across the 50 states plus the District of Columbia (I excluded schools tied to juvenile justice and those with missing or implausible values on several variables, including the one of interest). In the average school, 24 percent of teachers were absent more than 10 days during the year, but values range from zero to 100 percent. It’s no surprise to find a bit of variation in this measure, 8 percent, between states. The reason is that, in many cases, states set key policies governing teacher absence, and there’s variation in these policies. It also makes sense that 47 percent of the variation in the percentage of teachers absent more than 10 days is between local education agencies, the employers that handle the bulk of the policy and management burden around leaves of absence.

Thus, my cursory analysis of the latest and best data available finds 45 percent of the variation in teacher absence to be between schools working under the same district and state parameters. I leave it to others to verify that school grade level, aggregated measures of student characteristics, charter status, and perhaps other information account for some of this variation, but I’d be very, very surprised if the exercise removed suspicion from schools’ professional cultures as an important driver of teacher absences.

Researchers whose primary interests lie in increasing student achievement and promoting more strategic uses of money have good reason to pay more attention to teacher absences, but what about social science researchers with quite different interests? Here’s where Mozart re-enters the picture, for he attended to more than the presence and absence of notes. His work also spoke to the culture around him in terms of universal human tensions. Paying attention to teacher absence gets at the professional culture in schools through the notion of trust, a universal human tension if ever there was one. In particular, theory and evidence point to trust between teachers and management as a moderator of teacher absences.

We already know from the work of Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider that trust in schools is a big deal, and as Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress explains in his forthcoming book, The Leap, psychologists are starting to think that trust is a big deal in all kinds of ways. I don’t imagine that such a narrow facet of professional culture as trust between teachers and management is the most important or interesting one to study. But I am sure that building knowledge in this realm is important work, and tough work for social science researchers to get funded. I’ve pointed out here how the fiscal prudence and productivity concerns tied to teacher absences might help them crack that nut.

--Raegen Miller

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.