In fact, the findings, in a working paper published in November, suggest that when compared to people in similar jobs, teachers ask for time off less frequently, have fewer paid leaves, and are more likely to show up for work even if an absence is justified.
Concerns about teacher absences have been voiced for years. Federal data, for example, showed that 29 percent of teachers were considered chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year. And those concerns about teacher absences grew throughout the pandemic, as the focus on chronic absenteeism among students intensified.
The study compared teachers’ absence rates between 1995 and 2019—preceding the pandemic—to those in nursing, accounting, social work, and education support positions, using data from the O*NET database maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor, which compares job and employee characteristics. Those occupations were chosen for comparison because, among other factors, the people who hold them tend to have similar demographic backgrounds and are similarly likely to hold second jobs, the work requires similar education levels, and the positions tend to have similar amounts of available paid time off.
The analysis revealed that about 7 percent of teachers are absent at least once weekly, which, at first glance, appears higher than other college-educated workers, according to the report, authored by Rui Wang, an assistant professor at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
But, “these differences disappear once employee demographic and job-related characteristics are controlled,” the report says.
“Our findings suggest that teachers maintain similar levels of attendance as observationally similar workers, despite receiving lower wages and being exposed to stressful working conditions.”
That conclusion contrasts with the findings from some previous studies that have claimed teachers have higher absence rates than other professionals. But those studies are often comparing teachers with non-teaching jobs and using different data sources, absence measures, and time frames, which “limit apples-to-apples comparisons,” the report says.
The studies also don’t take into account that the majority of teachers (77 percent) are women, which is a larger proportion than 85 percent of other professions.
“As such, gender differences in the ability to attend work emerge, contributing significantly to the different absence rates between teachers and other workers,” the report says. “Naïve comparisons of absence rates between teachers and other workers may underestimate teachers’ working efforts and mislead policymakers in designing absence management policies.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country, which represents more than 1.5 million educators, welcomed the study’s conclusions.
“What this study does is it debunks the myth that teachers take a lot of time off—they don’t,” Weingarten said. “But it also highlights the need to have decent leave policies so that teachers can take care of themselves and their families when it’s needed most.”
Weingarten said she appreciates that the study acknowledged the differences between teaching jobs and other professionals, and said past studies that lacked that nuance have contributed to politically charged “attacks and smears about who teachers are and what they do.” That’s been especially true in recent years, she said, after school buildings were closed due to COVID-19 in 2020, and teachers’ unions and school districts often clashed over reopening plans.
Some viewed those disagreements as a push by teachers to work less or from home, rather than in school buildings. Weingarten has said teachers just wanted safe and well-thought out plans for returning to in-person work.
“Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of kids, and they push themselves hard,” Weingarten said. “They need decent pay, they need decent working conditions, and they need to be supported. They’ll do the rest because they want to teach.”
The cost of teacher absences
The study’s findings are noteworthy, the report said, because teacher absences have academic consequences for students. Educator absences can disrupt instruction schedules, reduce the quality of instruction students receive, and ultimately lead to lower standardized test scores, previous research has found.
The problem is compounded now, as districts struggle to hire and retain high -quality substitute teachers.
Those consequences and challenges could lead teachers to work when they’re sick, in an attempt to prevent negative impacts on students, the study says. But the flip side is that going to school when sick can expose students to illness, too. And other studies have shown sick teachers have a harder time managing the classroom and creating positive relationships with students, the report noted.
It’s also important to recognize that leave policies vary by district, the report says, but teachers, on average, receive about 11 days of time off each year for illness and four for personal business. And, despite having a summer vacation, teachers are generally only paid for 10 working months, rather than 12, and, as a result, face financial pressure. About 16 percent of teachers work a second job. So, the report says, “summer breaks do not mean a vacation for many teachers.”
The study also found that people who have ever been teachers in their career, “consistently show a lower level of absences than others,” which implies educators have a high intrinsic motivation to attend work.
So, districts that aim to maintain or reduce the level of teacher absences should consider more supportive, rather than punitive measures, the report says. Those could include offering wellness programs, providing onsite daycare, and finding ways to reduce teachers’ workloads, the report concluded.