The Cost of an Absent Teacher

When educators miss multiple days of school, your children are the ones who pay the price.

Did you slack off or act out when a substitute teacher taught your class? (Photo: Mieke Dalle)
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

In Camden, New Jersey, it's not unusual for 40 percent of the city's public school teachers to miss the same day of work.

While this district's numbers are above average, schools across the country are also experiencing high levels of teacher absenteeism. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, 36 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days during the 2009-10 school year. In the U.S., the national rate of absence for full-time wage and salaried American workers is three percent, yet it is 5.3 percent for American teachers overall.

Because this trend affects kids academically and schools financially, the report's author Raegen Miller states that it "can no longer be borne in silence."

More: New Report Blasts Poor Retention Rates for Irreplaceable Teachers

While every American worker is entitled to some time off of work, Miller, who is also the Associate Director for Education Research at the Center, states that the financial loss of teacher absenteeism is at least $4 billion annually.

In terms of achievement, the report points out that "every 10 absences lowers average mathematics achievement equivalent to the difference between having a novice teacher and one with a bit more experience."

There is more research that needs to be done to examine why teachers are absent, but what we do know includes:

  • Teacher absenteeism is higher in schools serving high proportions of African American or Latino students.
  • An increase in the average absence rate of a teacher’s colleagues increased the teacher’s own absence tally.
  • Multiple studies have linked teacher absence with job-related stress and that new teachers are particularly susceptible to student-borne illnesses.

An interesting fact the study points out is that charter school teachers are absent less frequently than educators at public schools.

Roland G. Fryer's widely debated report, "Learning From the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools," suggests that public schools may have a thing or two to learn from charters. Fryer determined that charters with high achievement maintained key factors, including: effective teachers and quality principals, high-dosage tutoring, and more days and hours for class time.

While the Center's report notes that charter schools offer different salary, wage, and leave benefits than traditional public schools, perhaps this is another element that public schools can take away from charters. The Center for American Progress report states, in regards to public schools, that "there is room in many districts and individual schools for teachers to have adequate access to paid leave while being absent less frequently."

Miller offers some thoughts for policymakers and schools on how to curb the high rate of abstenteeism. He suggests:

  • 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 to care for a new child, a seriously ill family member, or to recover from one’s own serious illness. But teachers’ leave provisions in some states may be too permissive, elevating rates of absence and incurring the financial liability of accumulated, unused leave.
  • All states should follow the lead of California and New Jersey to ensure that employees have access to family and medical leave insurance.
  • Encourage local policymakers to “right-size” leave privileges and initiate incentive policies designed to reduce levels of teacher absence.

If we want to reform failing public schools and bridge the achievement gap, teacher absenteeism, according to the report, may be a good place to start.

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com

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