If Teachers Don’t Go To School, Why Should Kids?

Published by EducationNews.org — When lots of teachers are out, school can get chaotic.


In Rhode Island, 55% of the teachers in high-poverty schools were absent 10 days or more during school year 2011-12.  RI’s was the highest rate in the nation, according to Equitable Access to Excellent Teachers, a set of U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) state-by-state reports.

Only the press release tipped me off to Rhode Island’s shameful factoid, since the DOE offered no press-friendly sortable tables that compared one state to another.  By opening several individual reports, I found that the absenteeism data among high-poverty schools were all over the map.  Alabama’s teachers were less absent from high poverty schools than the state’s teachers overall, which seems odd.

So I’ll focus on the statewide averages for teachers overall, instead of the high-poverty schools’ rates.  Of the reports I opened, again Rhode Island had the highest statewide absenteeism — 41%.  The fed researchers looked at teachers absent 10 days or more for sick leave or personal days, but not for professional development nor long-term sickness or disability.

Statewide absenteeism rates for New England and a few other states:

Connecticut — 30%
Maine — 25%
Massachusetts — 25%
New Hampshire — 30%
Rhode Island — 41%
Vermont — 34%
Alabama — 33%
California — 25%
New York — 33%
Texas — 25%

A school year is typically 180 days.  Ten days or more out of a relatively short work year is a lot.  Kids generally need consistent relationships.  In the case of high-poverty kids, school might be the only reliable constant in their lives.

Furthermore, substitute teaching is a tough job under any circumstances, but especially so in urban schools.  They have huge difficulties getting subs.  When no sub is available, students are divided among the remaining teachers, disrupting all classes for that grade level and sometimes turning school into babysitting.  If lots of teachers are out, school can get chaotic.  Teacher absenteeism is hard on kids and their education.

A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that a government employee is 38% more likely to call in sick than a worker in private industry.  Obviously the public-sector cultures in each state and individual agency vary greatly, as we saw in the state teacher absenteeism rates.  But some state cultures, such as Rhode Island’s, appear to encourage, or at least tolerate high absenteeism.

Yes, the private sector can get ugly and inflexible when it comes to necessary leave — especially as compared with Europe.  But businesses are not set up to supplant work that absent staff should be doing.  Some businesses offer a handful of sick days as a gift to be used only in the event of a bad flu, a child’s emergency.  Others count sick days as vacation time.  In any case, private-sector employees have little incentive to abuse time off.

Incentivizing attendance

To improve teacher attendance, some districts give teachers bonuses for using only 5 leave days or less.  This is a little weird since it pays them for what they ought to do anyway.

But even weirder are the sick-leave “banks” maintained by most regular school districts nationally.  Teachers “bank” unused sick days to build up a store in the event of long-term disability — which should be handled by insurance — or to be cashed out at the end of a teacher’s career.  (Districts have widely differing caps on how many days can be banked and different formulae for determining the cash value of unused sick days.)  These banks are a legacy from a past when public service paid badly, but offered glorious benefits.  It no longer pays so badly.  And under-the-radar benefits like these “banks” might have made sense once, but are now revealed to be obstacles to quality education.  One local district had the bank capped at roughly 250 days, which is to say that a teacher could take a year plus off by submitting a stress-leave note from a doctor.  (And don’t think it hasn’t happened.)  In more recent years, school committees have been reducing the time allowed and the value of these banks.  With less incentive to “bank,” some teachers just take the time off by maxing out their sick and personal leave.

Increasingly, states are publishing student “chronic absenteeism” data by school.  School-level data for teacher absenteeism might be useful as well.  Good data can change behavior.  When Rhode Island focused on student chronic absenteeism, school communities got serious about working on the obstacles to attendance.  In a mere year, student chronic absenteeism dropped a full percentage point at every level — elementary, middle and high — from 2012-13 to 2013-14 (scroll down to “Attendance”).

Surely similar sunshine could produce a healthy drop for teacher absenteeism.  Monkey see; monkey do.  Let’s find a way to help the adults model the behavior we want to see in the students.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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