Teaching Profession Opinion

Report Examines Impact of Teacher Absences on District Budgets, Student Learning

By Emily Douglas-McNab — August 07, 2014 3 min read
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In recent months, I have heard from a number of school district leaders who are concerned about an increase in teacher absences and the impact it is having not only on district budgets, but the quality of instruction for students.

At the same time I was hearing these reports from the field, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released Roll Call: The Importance of Teacher Attendance, which examines school attendance data from the country’s 40 largest metropolitan areas, including 234,031 teachers. The report points out that while many state legislatures have focused on policy around teacher effectiveness, no one appears to be discussing the impact of teacher attendance on student growth and achievement. “No matter how engaging or talented teachers may be, they can only have an impact on student learning if they are in the classroom,” NCTQ writes. This sentiment matches much of what I have been hearing from individual teachers, assistant principals, principals, and central office staff members over the past several months.

What does teacher attendance data look like nationally and what does it mean for student learning?

NCTQ reports that, on average, public school teachers were in the classroom 94 percent of the year, missing 11 days (with the average school year length teacher contract being 186 days). Yet, 16 percent of teachers were “chronically absent,” missing an average of more than 18 days, which accounted for almost one-third of all absences. It is important to note that these calculations exclude people who were out for what they call “long-term absences,” or individuals that missed more than 10 consecutive days. That means that chronically absent teachers were likely not gone due to Family Medical Leave.

There were some bright spots in the data. Sixteen percent of teachers had what NCTQ refers to as excellent attendance (missing 3 days or fewer) and 40 percent had moderate attendance (missing between 4 and 10 days).

We know that a chronically absent teacher can have a negative effect on student learning, but it can also take a financial toll on school districts. The 40 districts included in NCTQ’s study spent approximately $424 million on substitute teachers. That figure does not include “the time and resources spent recruiting, training, and securing substitutes.” Put another way, these districts spent about $1,800 per teacher they employ on substitutes.

Despite previous research to the contrary, NCTQ “did not find a relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of the children in the school building.” Looking through the reports from district to district you can see this to be the case as in many situations high poverty and low poverty buildings have similar (low) absenteeism rates. Further, the report found that “districts with formal policies in place to discourage teacher absenteeism did not appear to have better attendance rates than those without such policies, suggesting that the most common policies are not particularly effective.”

What does research say about policies and practices that DO make a difference in teacher attendance?

In 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper, Do Teacher Absences Impact Student Achievement? Longitudinal Evidence from One Urban School District, by Miller, Murnane, and Willett, which found:

  • Absence rates decrease “when incentive schemes like buy-backs of unused sick-leave (Boyer, 1994; Ehrenberg et al., 1991; Winkler, 1980) or bonuses for exceptional attendance (Boyer, 1994; Freeman & Grant, 1987; Jacobson, 1990; Skidmore, 1984; White, 1990) are implemented.”
  • Changes in absence control policies influence behaviors. “For example, teachers who are required to report absences directly to their principal by telephone are absent less often than teachers who report their absences indirectly, to either a centralized reporting center or a school-based message machine (Farrell & Stamm, 1988; Winkler, 1980).”

Are teacher absences a problem in your district? How are you working to manage the issue to ensure the best learning environment for students?

For more infromation on talent, performance, and process management in education, follow the conversation on Twitter using #K12Talent or by following @EmilyDouglasHC.

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