Report: Excessive teacher absences hurt students and budgets

Too many teachers across the country are missing work too often, and their absences are taking significant academic and financial tolls on schools, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit analyzed teacher attendance rates at more than 56,000 schools across the country in “Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement.” The report found that nearly 40 percent of teachers nationally missed more than 10 days of school during the 2009-10 school year, costing districts at least $4 billion in substitute-teacher and administrative fees.

The report’s author, Raegen Miller, writes that student achievement suffers when a teacher is frequently absent. “Every 10 absences lowers average mathematics achievement equivalent to the difference between having a novice teacher and one with a bit more experience,” Miller writes, referencing a 2008 study. “It’s plausible that achievement gaps can be attributed, in part, to a teacher attendance gap.”

Some states and individual districts have alarmingly high rates of absenteeism. In Arkansas, Hawaii and Rhode Island, nearly half of all teachers missed 10 or more days of school, compared with only 20 percent of teachers in Utah.

In New Jersey’s Camden City Public Schools, a district that has struggled with poverty and poor test scores, up to 40 percent of teachers are absent on any given school day, a figure that has forced the district to hire a private substitute-teacher agency to help ensure there’s an adult in each classroom.

Nationally, teachers are more likely to be absent if they’re female, teach in middle schools, or teach in public schools rather than charters. Schools with high proportions of African-American or Latino students, as well as those with more low-income students, also reported higher rates of teacher absences.

Differences in state policies also lead to disparities. Some states allow teachers as many as 15 paid sick days a year, for instance, while others allow just seven. The report found that teacher absences are often driven by district- or school-level factors, too. Teachers tend to be absent less when they’re required to notify their principals of an absence by telephone, and a separate study found that schools with stressful or negative staff cultures had higher absence rates.

The report recommends giving teachers at least seven paid sick days per year, but reducing the number of excused absences in districts that lean toward a “more permissive” policy. It also recommends that school districts use incentives to discourage “frivolous” use of paid leave, and adopt electronic systems to manage absences in more cost-effective ways.


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