Excessive Teacher Absences Linked to Achievement Shortfalls

Beginning in 2009, the Office for Civil Rights, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, began appending another data point to the Civil Rights Data Collection survey it releases every two years: teacher absences. As Raegen Miller writes for the American Progress, this information is vital for predicting education success, because her research has shown that the rate of teacher absences is strongly linked to student achievement.

The data collected by the U.S. Department of Education presented an alarming picture. Over the course of 2009-2010 academic year, the first for which the information is available, more than a third of all teachers were recorded as absent for more than 10 days. When looked at closely, it was clear that the absence rates varied greatly between states and even districts in the same state. In Utah, where the excessive absence rates were the lowest in the country, only about 20% of teachers were out of the classroom for ten days or more. In Rhode Island, which topped the list, more than 50% of teachers took off at least ten days over the course of the year.

The percentages reported by individual schools range from 0 percent to 100 percent, with 62 percent of the variation in the measure occurring between districts and a third occurring within districts. The latter statistic is significant because all schools within a given district operate under the same leave policies, and teacher absence levels well above a district average may be a symptom of a dysfunctional professional culture at the building level.

There was also a substantial gap between absence rates in traditional public schools and charter schools. On average, 15.2% fewer charter teachers were excessively absent from class than their public school counterparts.

If the absence rates have an impact on student achievement, then this fallout is in large part borne by African-American and Latino students. Even accounting for factors like grade level and type of school, teacher absence rates at schools where the student body was 90% minority were, on average, 3.5% higher than at those where minorities make up only 10% of the school’s population.

Schools spend more on the salary and benefits of teachers than any category of expenditure, so it’s not surprising that the financial costs of teacher absence are high. With 5.3 percent of teachers absent on a given day, stipends for substitute teachers and associated administrative costs amount to a minimum of $4 billion annually. Additional financial costs tied to teacher absence include payouts of accumulated, unused leave and annual awards designed to discourage unnecessary absences. In some states these payout costs come in the form of enhanced lifetime pension benefits. A comprehensive cost figure is extremely difficult to calculate, but this does not preclude knowing that the figure is too high.