Report: Teacher Absenteeism Can Hurt Student Achievement

Many teachers missed 18 or more school days, or about 10 percent of the school year.

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On average, teachers miss 11 school days and are considered "frequently absent," according to a new report.

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Teachers nationwide are in the classroom 94 percent of the school year, but students may still be getting shortchanged by the more than 1 in 10 teachers deemed to be chronically absent, according to a new report ​released by the National Council on Teacher Quality on Tuesday. 

Using data from 40 large school districts across the country from the 2012-13 school year the NCTQ found that, on average, teachers missed nearly 11 days out of a 186-day school year. This is considered frequently absent. Still, 16 percent of those teachers missed 18 or more days – equivalent to about 10 percent of the school year – and were considered chronically absent, the report found. 

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"Generally there's good news, and the average attendance rate reflects that," says Nancy Waymack, managing director of district policy for NCTQ. "But it's being dragged down by teachers who are chronically absent."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a released statement that the overall attendance rate shows "the extraordinary dedication of teachers across the country." 

"This kind of stability is what our kids need to succeed," Weingarten said.

Previous research from the National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that when teachers are absent for 10 days, there is a significant decrease in student outcomes. The decrease, Waymack says, makes the difference between students having a brand new teacher and one with two or three years of teaching experience. 

A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that on average 36 percent of teachers nationwide were absent for at least 10 days during the 2009-10 school year. And the NCTQ report found it was particularly common for teachers to miss more than 10 days of school, which Waymack says is equivalent to about one day every two weeks.

"We want to make sure there's appropriate attention on attendance to address this simple area of teacher effectiveness," Waymack says. "No matter how qualified, creative and good of a teacher they are, if they're not there, they're not going to have that positive impact that they should."

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But it's not just students who suffer negative consequences due to teacher absenteeism, Waymack says. At a school, teacher absences can disrupt the normal flow of operations and put an undue burden on other teachers, especially if the absences are unplanned, she says. 

If a substitute teacher is not able to fill in – which is more common in high-poverty areas, Waymack adds – students are sometimes divided into other teachers' classes, or other teachers give up preparation periods to cover other classes. Interestingly, however, the NCTQ report did not find a relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of the children in the school.

And at the district level, hiring substitute teachers can be extremely expensive. Of the districts the NCTQ examined, Waymack says, the group spent about $424 million on substitute teachers in the 2012-13 school year, which works out to about $1,800 per individual. 

Waymack says she hopes improving teacher attendance could be an easy win to increase overall teacher quality, as the 16 percent of teachers who are chronically absent make up more than one-third of all teacher absences.

"If you are able to address the issues keeping that 16 percent out of the classroom, you can reduce absences substantially just by working with that small group," Waymack says. 

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While the report did not find a difference between districts with specific policies in place aimed at curbing absenteeism and those that didn't, Waymack says there may be practices in schools – such as an expectation to directly notify the principal of an absence – that can help. Additionally, Waymack says school leaders should also look for ways to reduce the amount of time teachers are out of the classroom for important reasons – such as professional development or other kinds of training – because it still takes time away from the students. 

"If we can make an improvement on teacher attendance, I think it could go a long way to making some of the other efforts many people are doing pay off," Waymack says.