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

Published by — 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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Chronic Absenteeism Reveals and Causes Problems

Published by — If kids aren’t at school, all of the school’s other efforts just don’t matter.

If a kid’s not listening, she’s not learning. If the kid’s not even in school, she’s certainly not listening.

Showing up every day and on time are skills absolutely necessary to success, especially at the entry level of any job or profession. Who would argue?

And yet, high absenteeism is a huge problem across the nation.

Hedy Chang, the Director of Attendance Works, says that Americans are perfectly aware that compulsory attendance at school is the law. They just don’t much care.

And no one teaches parents how to get 3 kids up, dressed, fed and out the door on time. It’s a feat. More challenging for some than others.

So Attendance Works’ mission is to help communities get their kids to school.

High absenteeism is a chronic problem that contributes to the more famous problems of low achievement and kids dropping out. Urban schools in particular are vilified for their poor academic performance, but they have limited control over whether or not the kids’ butts are in the seats. Yes, some instruction is deadly dull. But even schools with vibrant curricula, cool projects and caring adults can’t hang on to kids who have already disengaged from school, for whatever reason.

Chang’s research shows that kids start bunking school as early as 3rd and 4th grade.

So today, let’s focus on the littlest kids who have no choice about skipping school — those in kindergarten and grade one.

Nationally, one out of 10 of this very young cohort is “chronically absent,” missing more than 10 percent of school time. That’s 18 days out of a 180-day school year, about a month of school.

In Providence, Rhode Island, one third of the kindergartners are chronically absent. Rhode Island’s truancy law also says that three incidents of being tardy is supposed to add up to an absence, so even that one-third is seriously under-counted. (States have very different laws, by the way. In Maryland, truancy is missing 20 percent of school, or two months. In New York, each district has its own rules.)

The pain of it is that these kids will never make up the time. When kids are AWOL in the earliest grades, Chang says, “even if their 3rd-grade attendance is better, 5th-grade reading will still suffer. That includes kids who tested proficient when they came to K and 1. Low-income kids DEPEND on school to learn the habits that support reading.”

If a middle-schooler is disengaged, it’s absolute murder to get him back. So Chang emphasizes that the on-time-every-day habit needs be established as a non-negotiable when the child is quite young.

She cites three big reasons for chronic absenteeism among little kids.

1. Discretion. School just isn’t all that important to some parents. School’s convenient when it’s convenient.

Chang shakes her head, “Many people don’t understand how you learn a language or reading. You can explain the consequences of missing school to parents, but often they say ‘Just give me the work.’ It’s hard to convey the richness of the classroom and the powers of peer learning.”

“Discretion” is a parent problem.

2. Aversion. This one’s mostly the fault of the school. Perhaps the classroom is chaotic and therefore scary or stressful. Or the teacher is a bully and yells a lot. Kids tend to bully each other anyway at times, so that can get out of hand. And now that we’ve starved kids of time for recess, physical activity and running off steam, an otherwise great group of kids is bound to let off steam, somehow, even during class time.

Little kids can’t bunk, but they do get daily tummy aches. Those are red flags of aversion.

3. Logistical Problems. These include kids’ health, parents’ health, transportation, and so forth.

For example, when the City of Baltimore reached out to their chronically absent kindergartners and first graders, they discovered that a third of them suffered from asthma.

Also, transportation is a nightmare for many families. Some have several kids in as many schools. Many families move a lot, mainly for reasons of poverty. Space permitting, districts often transfer these mobile kids to a school closer to the new apartment, but that’s no favor to the continuity of kids’ education or relationships with friends and adults. It’s great if he can be bused to the old school, but if he misses the bus, Mom might not have a car, or the time to transport the kid herself.

So these kids start their school career by losing ground.

I’ve only touched on the problems of little kids. Attendance Works has gobs of research and information about absenteeism at all ages.

Chang strongly cautions that there’s no way you can know what the problem is until you go investigate. Dig. Find out. Don’t assume. Poor attendance unearths such an odd collection of issues that only good information can help to tailor good responses. Fortunately Attendance Works reports on solutions crafted by specific districts. Find them under“What Works.”

The bottom line is that improving the nation’s attendance rate is going to be hard, hard work. It will need a public campaign to solicit the whole community’s help. Because if the kid’s not there, all other school efforts just don’t matter.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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