School & District Management

Regular Public School Teachers Miss More School Than Charter Teachers, Study Finds

By Liana Loewus — September 20, 2017 6 min read

Teachers in traditional public schools are much more likely than teachers in charter schools to miss more than 10 days of work, according to a new report from a right-leaning think tank.

About 28 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are “chronically absent,” defined in the report as taking more than 10 days of personal or sick leave. In charter schools, just 10 percent of teachers take that much leave, the analysis found.

The differences are starker in some states than others: In Hawaii, for instance, about 79 percent of traditional public school teachers are chronically absent. In charter schools there, it’s 23 percent.

The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that the gaps between charter and district teachers were largest in the states where the districts have to collectively bargain—or negotiate conditions of employment, including time off—but charters do not have to do so.

“I think the biggest takeaway is that teacher chronic absenteeism seems to be driven by state policy and local collective bargaining agreements—and possibly to a greater extent than is generally appreciated,” said David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at Fordham and the report’s author.

However, Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that “Fordham is using corrupted assertions to draw misguided conclusions.”

Griffith looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Council on Teacher Quality (which keeps a database of teacher contracts), and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The OCR collects data from every school in the country on how many teachers missed more than 10 days of school. The agency does not disaggregate by the actual number of days missed. The data do include extended absences, such as maternity leave, but do not count days missed for professional development (though OCR notes some districts may have inadvertently included professional development days when they reported the absences).

Interpreting the Data

The study is descriptive, meaning that it cannot determine causality. And some of the data sources are several years old—the most recent OCR data collection took place in 2013-14, and the NAPCS records on charters’ union status are from 2009-10.

“The thing that really gives me confidence in the patterns we’re uncovering is that the magnitude of the differences [between district-run schools and charter schools] is really difficult to explain with anything else,” said Griffith. “I don’t think that Hawaiian teachers [in public schools] are that much more likely to take maternity leave or get sick. What is sure, is that teachers in Hawaii are entitled to 18 days of sick leave, which is more than any other state.”

However, as the report says, the analysis was not able to show a relationship between “policies that address attendance directly (such as the number of sick and personal days teachers are guaranteed) and the likelihood that a teacher will be chronically absent.”

On average, typical public school teachers receive about 12 days of sick and personal leave per year, the report says. Griffith did not have numbers for the charter sector, “although it seems unlikely that the policies are as generous,” he said.

In 34 of the 35 states with a sizeable charter sector (at least 10 brick-and-mortar schools), teachers in traditional public schools were more likely to be chronically absent than teachers in charter schools, the report says. The one exception was Alaska, where about a third of teachers in charters were absent for more than 10 days. In traditional public schools, less than 30 percent were absent as much. (Alaska is also one of the states where charters abide by collective bargaining agreements.)

In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “Leave polices exist to ensure kids can learn in a safe and healthy environment. ... The reality is that charter schools need better leave policies, not worse ones, a fact ignored by Fordham.”

Griffith also looked at how unionized and nonunionized charter schools differ.

Of the 6,900 charter schools nationally, about 1 in 10 have teachers’ unions. According to the report, 18 percent of teachers in unionized charter schools are chronically absent. It’s about half that in charter schools without unions.

Cultural or Contractual?

Raegen T. Miller, the research director at FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s public policy school, who reviewed the paper for Fordham, called the results “intuitively reasonable.”

Teachers who work in charters “agree to go there as an at-will employee in most cases,” said Miller, who once served as a president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, Calif. “This means you’re buying into a school culture and a way of doing business. That doesn’t include the elaborate leave policies you can often find in a collective bargaining agreement.”

Aside from collective bargaining, charters and district public schools tend to differ in other ways as well: Teachers at charters are younger and less experienced than those at traditional public schools on average, and they are paid less.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group that has also studied teacher absences, said the most salient difference between the two types of schools is not collective bargaining. Charters are generally autonomous, and not beholden to a larger bureaucracy—the teachers there may have trouble slipping under the radar, Walsh argued. “It’s like comparing a small shop to IBM,” she said.

In his own prior research, Miller has shown a link between teacher absenteeism and student achievement: When teachers miss 10 days of school, their students perform worse in math and are less engaged than their peers whose teachers were absent less often. Miller also pointed out that teacher absenteeism rates tend to differ greatly from school to school within a district—and that variation in absences mainly seems to be the product of differences in culture between individual schools. Many charters pride themselves on having a strong shared school culture.

“I’m not saying that collective bargaining is the big chalupa here,” he said. “I’m saying that a measure of teacher absence, even a blunt one, provides a window into the professional culture in buildings.”

Walsh agreed that school culture plays a significant role. “Though I’m certainly sympathetic to [Fordham’s] conclusions because I do think job protections contribute to the absenteeism problem, our take is it’s much more complicated than their report suggests,” she said. She pointed to big discrepancies in teacher absenteeism rates between cities—for instance, the report shows that more than 30 percent of traditional public school teachers miss more than 10 days in Chicago, while in San Francisco it’s 10 percent. Teachers in both cities collectively bargain.

“The difference is there’s a cultural expectation you show up,” she said.

At least a couple of states—including Rhode Island and Virginia—are considering including a measure of teacher absenteeism as part of their accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teachers Found to Miss More Work In Regular Schools Than in Charters

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