On May 16, 2013, Choice Media, an online education news service that is critical of teachers unions, posted a provocative story, What’s Making Asbury Park Teachers Sick?. They collected data from a few New Jersey towns, through a Freedom of Information Act request, and found that Asbury Park’s teachers averaged more than 18 absences a year over the past two years . Each missed more than three solid weeks of school or, put another way, about 10 percent of the school year. Conventional wisdom would say that chronically absent teachers can’t be good for these students — largely low-income minorities — who need as much instruction as possible. And it’s certainly not good for taxpayers, who have to shell out more money for substitute teachers.
But, what’s interesting, is that Choice Media found that even a high-performing, high-income school district can have a high rate of teacher absences. In Montclair, for example, where many New York City professionals flock to for the good schools, the average teacher is absent more than 12 days a school year.
We all know that schools are germ factories and one could expect the sick rate for teachers to be higher than for, say, desk-bound insurance actuaries. But 18 or 12 days just seems like too much, no?
Not if you live in Rhode Island, it turns out. Teachers in that state took off an average of 21 days per school year. (A full list of state rankings can be found in Table 1, page 8 of Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement: New National Data Offer Opportunity to Examine Cost of Teacher Absence Relative to Learning Loss by Raegen Miller, Center for American Progress, November 2012.)
In a Spring 2013 magazine story No substitute for a teacher for Education Next, former Wall Street Journal reporter June Kronholz dug into the teacher absenteeism numbers. She reported that nationally, the average teacher takes off 9.4 days per school year. But this number may be misleadingly low because districts count absences in different ways. “Some would count the tennis coach absent if he left his gym classes in the hands of a sub to attend an out-of-town tournament with his team; others wouldn’t. Some count professional development days when subs are hired to take the class; others don’t,” wrote Kronholz.
Kronholz points out that unionized teachers tend to have generous sick-and-personal day policies. Citing the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) as a source, Kronholz says that union contracts in 113 large school districts give their teachers, on average, 13.5 days of sick and personal leave per school year.
So how much does teacher absenteeism affect student performance? That’s unclear. The Miller study cited above says it’s challenging to measure because teachers are gone on a day-to-day basis, but student performance is measured far less frequently. In an earlier paper, “Do Teacher Absences Impact Student Achievement?” Miller, with co-authors Murnane and Willet, calculated that every 10 days of teacher absence was associated with a moderately lower math score in one urban school district.
What is clearer in the data is that low-income schools tend to have greater rates of teacher absenteeism than wealthier schools within the same geographic region. According to a study of North Carolina schools by Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor, “Are Teacher Absences Worth Worrying about in the U.S.?”;, schools in the poorest quartile averaged almost one extra sick day per teacher than schools in the highest income quartile.
Has teacher absenteeism been increasing or decreasing in recent years? Also unclear. The Civil Rights Data Collection department inside the U.S. Department of Education only began tracking teacher absences in 2009. It will be several years before the 2011-12 data report is out.