Schools that serve high percentages of African American and Latino students are more likely to have teacher absences, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. The report, Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement: New National Data Offer Opportunity to Examine Cost of Teacher Absence Relative to Learning Loss, bases its findings on the U.S. Department of Education’s biennial Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) survey on teacher absences, released in early 2012.
Having analyzed 56,837 schools, the CRDC survey revealed that nationwide, 36 percent of teachers were absent more than ten days during School Year (SY) 2009–10; individual states range from a low of 21 percent in Utah to a high of 50 percent in Rhode Island.
According to the report, 5.3 percent of teachers nationally are absent on any given school day. But in New Jersey’s Camden City Public Schools—a district where $22,000 per pupil is spent annually—up to 40 percent of teachers are absent on any given school day. After controlling for grade level and whether a school is a charter, the report finds that a school the 90th percentile for African American students has a teacher absence rate that was 3.5 percentage points higher than a school in the 10th percentile. For Latino students, the difference is 3.2 percentage points.
While students of color are most negatively affected by teacher absences, charter school students are affected least. Traditional public schools experience teacher absences at a rate of 15.2 percentage points higher than those in charter schools.
One factor in this gap is state policy: states influence district and local leave policy for teachers. States can set a floor as low as seven days for paid teacher sick leave, but many states set the floor much higher, providing the means for teachers to take more sick time. The report believes that states with higher floors are far too “permissive” for teachers’ absences.
There are also gaps in percentages of teacher absences by grade level. Middle schools experienced the highest percentage of teacher absences with a national average of 37.8 percent, compared to 36.7 percent in elementary schools and 33.3 percent at the high school level.
The report notes that teachers have long been recognized as the most important determinant of student success. When they are absent from the classroom, learning slows. According to the report, every ten days a teacher is absent lowers average mathematics achievement equivalent to the difference between having a novice teacher and one with a bit more experience.
In addition to the academic cost, schools incur a large financial cost for teacher absenteeism. Although the report does not determine a comprehensive cost, it points out that stipends for substitute teachers and associated administrative costs alone amount to at least $4 billion annually.
“The cost of teacher absence, both in financial and academic terms, can no longer be borne in silence,” the report reads.
What can be done to reduce teacher absenteeism? Some states and local districts are incentivizing teachers to take less paid leave through enhanced participation in pension plans and pay outs. Research finds that policies requiring teachers to phone-in to their principal to report being out reduces teacher absences, as well.
Read the full report at