New National Data Offer Opportunity to Examine Cost of Teacher Absence
Washington, D.C. — Today a new study from the Center for American Progress sheds light on the often overlooked problem of excessive teacher absence and makes a case for how our nation’s school districts can improve student achievement and realize significant savings by developing smarter teacher leave policies. The paper examines new data collected by the federal government and concludes that the vast variation in teacher absence behavior means there is room in many districts and individual schools for teachers to have adequate access to paid leave while being absent less frequently.
For the first time ever, the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education included teacher absences as an item on its biennial Civil Rights Data Collection survey. The Department of Education calls the measure a “leading indicator” of student achievement—a reasonable label given the documented relationship between absence rates measured at the teacher level and student academic success. In the report, “Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement,” author Raegen Miller, Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress, examined the new data. Key findings from his analysis include:
- There is a large variation in teacher absence behavior. On average, 36 percent of teachers nationally were absent more than 10 days during the 2009-10 school 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. State averages of teacher absence range from a low of 20.9 percent in Utah to a high of 50.2 percent in Rhode Island.
- Type of school matters. Teachers are absent from traditional public schools more than 10 times per year at a rate that is 15.2 percentage points higher than in charter schools.
- Grade level matters. A school’s grade-level configuration provides some indication of its teachers’ absence behavior. On average, 33.3 percent of high school teachers, 36.7 percent of middle school teachers, and 37.8 percent of middle school teachers were absent more than 10 days per year.
- Racial disparities exist. Schools serving high proportions of African American or Latino students are disproportionately exposed to teacher absence. Holding constant the grade level and whether a school is a charter, a school with its proportion of African American students in the 90th percentile has a teacher absence rate that is 3.5 percentage points higher than a school in the 10th percentile. The corresponding differential based on percentages of Latino students is 3.2 percentage points.
The report’s key findings strengthen the empirical basis for revving up debate and negotiations around policies related to teacher absence. While the federal government’s decision to collect teacher absence data was a step in the right direction, the report calls on policymakers at lower levels of government consider the following recommendations:
- State policymakers should revisit statues governing employees’ leave privileges. All employees should have access to a minimum standard of at least seven paid sick days per year, and most teachers are covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Teachers’ leave provisions in some states, however, may be too permissive, elevating rates of absence and incurring the financial liability of accumulated, unused leave.
- All states should ensure that employees have access to family and medical leave insurance to provide income support when a worker has a new child, needs to care for a seriously ill family member, or needs to recover from one’s own serious illness.
- Local policymakers should be encouraged to “right-size” leave privileges and initiate incentive policies designed to reduce levels of teacher absence. Many examples of such policies exist and teachers respond to them. The cost associated with smart incentive plans can be covered by the savings realized from reduced absence rates. Improved student achievement would be a likely and desirable side benefit of such initiatives.
Read the report: Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement
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