When America’s Teachers Are the Ones Skipping School

Growing numbers of public school educators are chronically absent from class.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Oct 31, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s an invisible crisis in America’s classrooms, one that likely would prompt hair-on-fire action if the statistic applied to student attendance: A federal report shows roughly one in four public school teachers is chronically absent, missing the equivalent of two weeks of class every academic year.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has reported that 27 percent of the nation’s elementary and secondary school teachers missed, at minimum, more than 10 days of regular classes. The statistics, collected and released during the past few months, are based on self-reported numbers from school districts across the country.

Experts say the statistics illustrate the broad range of competing demands—including federal and local educational mandates, pay linked to student test scores, gender imbalance in the classroom, and struggles to balance work and family—that top the list of teacher complaints.

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“Teacher stress has certainly been on the increase over the last decade, as teachers have been blamed for all of the socio economic problems that impact their students’ academic achievement,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank specializing in classroom issues, wrote in an email to TakePart. “That does create considerable anxiety and take a toll on teachers’ physical and mental health.”

Chronically absent teachers have an impact on students too, including lowering student achievement, according to experts. Teacher advocates suggest the numbers—including the declaration that absenteeism has reached 75 percent in some rural areas and big cities—could be inflated, eliminating in-service days, scheduled personal days, or flex time for after-school work.

“They are aggregate numbers—they don’t tell us how absences are distributed, either among school districts, among schools within the district or by level (high, middle, elementary),” Casey wrote. “That disaggregation is important.”

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The Department of Education has sounded the alarm about student absenteeism, declaring in a recent study that “widespread” chronic truancy hampers achievement and puts students at higher risk of dropping out. It reported that about one in seven students missed three weeks or more of school in 2013–14, which “translates to approximately 98 million school days lost.”

Teacher absenteeism can take a toll as well: A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study found that students don’t perform as well when teacher absences total 10 days or more. The cumulative effect of the missing days, the study found, is equivalent to the difference between students having a first-year teacher and one with two or three years of experience.

The Urban Institute’s National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research also found that low-income kids in underserved urban schools are more likely to have missing teachers—and more likely to be hurt academically by the absences.

In a report, the center found that when ranked by the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, the poorest schools “averaged almost one extra sick day per teacher than schools in the highest income quartile, and schools with persistently high rates of teacher absence were much more likely to serve low-income than high-income students.” The absences “are associated with lower student achievement in elementary grades.”

The Department of Education’s truancy report also declared that “the reasons for chronic absenteeism are as varied as the challenges our students and families face—including poor health, limited transportation, and a lack of safety in the school.” The reasons for teacher absenteeism are strikingly similar, including transportation issues for educators in rural schools and unsafe conditions for ones in underserved urban schools.

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While most say it’s difficult to pinpoint why teachers are missing in action, experts typically blame one common denominator: on-the-job stress, including increasing classroom sizes and an emphasis on test scores as an indicator of teacher performance.

“The data also doesn’t address some other basic conditions faced by teachers—the stress, the need to work beyond the school day and the juggling of work and home that interferes more with their family life than most professions,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest unions, told The Washington Post. “To better address absenteeism, we need to understand root causes.”

The classroom gender gap is also a factor, wrote the Albert Shanker Institute’s Casey. “Elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female, and many are mothers of young children themselves,” he said. “Given the ways in which child rearing still falls disproportionately on women in our society, they find themselves having to take days off to care for ill children.”

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Ultimately, “there is not really a single reason that explains teacher absences,” Casey wrote. “But the fact that financial incentives for teachers to avoid absences, such as paying them for unused sick days, have limited impact, points to the fact that teachers are not taking days off for casual reasons.”

While there isn’t a silver bullet, Casey wrote, there are some things the government, the district, and schools can do to keep teachers on the job and improve student achievement at the same time. The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, for example, recommends hiking base teacher pay and penalizing educators for unexcused absences, while Casey suggests empowering teachers and easing their workloads.

“Many of the factors which increase teacher absence—teacher stress, unsafe teaching, and learning environments, high student workloads, lack of teacher voice, unprofessional administration—are not conducive to good teaching and learning in general,” he wrote, “and schools and districts should be working on abating them.”