Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

1 in 4 Teachers Miss 10 or More School Days, Analysis Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 27, 2016 5 min read
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More than 6.5 million students in 2013-14 attended a school where at least half of teachers missed 10 days of school or more, according to the most recent estimate from the U.S. Department of Education.

Now, a new analysis by the Education Week Research Center adds some context to those numbers. Looking at the same data from the federal civil rights office, it finds that nationwide, slightly more than 1 in 4 teachers missed 10 days or more of school in 2013-14.

While every day off can set teachers and their students behind, 10 days evens out to about a day a month in a 180-day school year. It’s a typical minimum leave, both for school districts and employers in other professions, and may include leave for illness or personal issues, jury duty, bereavement, religious holidays or parental leave. However, the federal data does not provide details of exactly how many days individual teachers miss, or for what reasons.

In Seattle, for example, teachers get 12 days of sickness and personal leave time in a 10-month school year, according to the National Center for Teaching Quality’s district contract database. Many districts are more generous than that: Boston, for example, gives 15 days and allows teachers to roll over their unused time.

Prior research has found students whose teachers miss 10 days of school have lower math achievement and less engagement in school.

Questions on Causes

Both Education Week’s analysis and a 2013 study by NCTQ found teacher absenteeism was virtually the same for schools with high and low concentrations of students in poverty. Schools with high concentrations of low-income students were about equally likely to have high rates of teacher absenteeism as other schools. (The Education Week analysis did not include racial data.)

Individual state education policies and economies may play a role in teacher leave, however. Based on the Education Week analysis, Hawaii had the highest absentee rate, at 75 percent of teachers taking more than 10 days off, while in Utah, the lowest, only 16 percent do so. In Nevada, which is coping with deepening teacher shortages, nearly half of all teachers miss more than 10 days of school a year, and long-term substitutes often fill in for teachers in high-need areas like special education.

“There’s no getting around the fact that teachers are going to be absent, because they are professionals but also human and there are things that come up,” said Nithya Joseph, the director for state and district policy at the National Center for Teaching Quality. But, she added, “the sub is always going to be coming in at a disadvantage. When students are with a substitute, that does come at a cost to the student.”

The policy mechanisms that exacerbate or curb teacher absences are hard to pinpoint, though. Across 40 of the largest school districts in the country in 2013, Joseph and her colleagues at NCTQ analyzed differences between districts with rewards for perfect attendance, strict reporting, and other punitive measures intended to discourage taking time off, and other common initiatives.

“We just didn’t find any correlation between those policies and teacher absences,” Joseph said. “We couldn’t find a concrete reason why. It sounded like it was more something related to school culture; it was anecdotal, but pretty consistent in the people we talked to.”

For example, teachers were less likely to take time off when there was no standardized system in the district for finding a good substitute.

Training and Support

The effect of a teacher’s absence on students may also hinge on the kinds of supports and requirements in place for substitute teachers. For example, Washington state, Iowa, and Alabama each have teacher absentee rates at or around 30 percent, but local policies differ considerably. In Alabama, a high school diploma or GED and a background check are enough to allow an adult to take over a class for a week at $8.50 an hour. A general education substitute in Iowa needs a bachelor’s degree and 15 hours of training by the district and gets paid a median $13.60 an hour. Washington state, which has experienced off-and-on substitute shortages, has even higher standards: a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, plus two days of targeted professional development in major districts like Seattle. Its median pay, at more than $17 an hour, ranks among the top in the country for substitutes, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jim Politis, the head of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance and a substitute for more than 15 years, said across the country, substitutes get very little training or support.

“It’s very much sink or swim,” Politis said. “Retired teachers generally have very little trouble dealing with a class and improvising even if it’s not their subject area—but most substitutes are not former teachers, and there’s no differentiation in the preparation for substitutes depending on their background.”

In Seattle, the district has started trying to pair substitutes with particular schools to build relationships among substitutes and classroom teachers, and to pay new substitutes for an hourlong orientation training. Teachers have developed most professional development for substitutes on their own, according to Jan Bowersox, a Seattle Education Association board member in charge of professional development. Last August, more than 120 substitute teachers gathered for a daylong seminar before the start of school, with sessions on topics like assertiveness, discouraging disruption, and “Establishing a Classroom Climate (Quickly) So Learning Can Happen.”

“[Professional development] designed by and presented by subs for subs is proving to be very effective,” Bowersox said.

Long-Term Relationships

Yet researchers and teachers alike argue districts could do more to plan for teacher absences in ways that keep students on their academic path and engaged in school.

Students can be more likely to disengage with a teacher who is absent frequently, particularly at the start of the year, according to Robert Balfanz, education professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Obviously, if the kids see that teachers are absent on a regular basis and there are a lot of subs, it sends a signal that not much is happening at school,” Balfanz said. “If teachers aren’t attending, it’s hard to make a convincing case that students should be attending regularly.”

The Substitute Teachers Alliance has recommended building closer working relationships between substitutes and teachers at individual schools.

“I think if a sub comes in and has a great lesson plan mapped out for them, that’s a great thing to do,” Joseph said, “but there’s still ... building the relationships and that rapport that makes a difference.”

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