Teacher Absence Can Serve as an Indicator of Student Achievement

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On any given school day, up to 40 percent of teachers in New Jersey’s Camden City Public Schools are absent from their classrooms. Such a high figure probably would not stand out in parts of the developing world, but it contrasts sharply with the 3 percent national rate of absence for full-time wage and salaried American workers, and the 5.3 percent rate of absence for American teachers overall. Certainly, it isn’t unreasonable for Camden residents to expect lower rates of teacher absence, particularly when the district annually spends top dollar—more than $22,000 per pupil—to educate its students. And advocates for students of color, who constitute 99.5 percent of the district’s enrollment, could potentially use these new data from the Department of Education to support a civil rights complaint.

Beginning in 2009 the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education included a new item on its biennial Civil Rights Data Collection survey—teacher absences. Notwithstanding concerns about equity, attention to this issue is appropriate for two reasons:

  • First, teachers are the most important school-based determinant of students’ academic success. It’s no surprise researchers find that teacher absence lowers student achievement.
  • Second, resources are scarce, and any excess of funds tied up in teacher absence, which costs at least $4 billion annually, should be put to better use.

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