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What Happens When Teachers Miss School?

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Co-authored by Mikhail Zinshteyn

You'd think it would be clear when a teacher is absent from class, but the response to a new big report from the National Council on Teacher Quality has shown that not every district agrees on the definitions for excused absences, and that efforts to curtail them are having little effect. The report also exposes the debate over what impact these teacher absences have on student learning.

The NCTQ report offers what might seem like a comforting statistic for school districts anxious to squeeze the most out of every instructional minute in the academic day: Teachers in 40 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas are showing up for work 94 percent of the time.

But the report also found that in those districts, 16 percent of teachers met the NCTQ's definition of "chronically absent:" missing at least 10 percent of the instructional days. This group accounted for a third of all absences. At the other end of the spectrum, 16 percent of teachers had "excellent" attendance, missing no more than three days over the course of the school year. The report only looked at short-term absences for illness, personal time and professional development, and excluded long-term absences such as maternity leave.

Why does this matter? There's research suggesting teacher absences can hurt student achievement. And substitutes cost additional money when many cash-strapped districts are already struggling. But as Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk points out in his solid overview of the report, the NCTQ findings "raises more questions than answers on this thorny issue."

Among those questions: Why aren't interventions aimed at reducing teacher absenteeism having an effect in the districts that have put them in place? Why did this report, contrary to prior research, not find teacher absenteeism rates were higher in schools serving more children from low-income families? Why are annual teacher absences over 80 percent higher in Cleveland (15.6 days) than in Tampa, Fla. (8.6 days)?

The NCTQ report found sick days were the most common teacher absences, followed by personal time and professional obligations (typically used for district-mandated training). However, not all districts use the same terminology and definitions to categorize leave, and NCTQ wasn't able to get precise breakdowns from all 40 districts.

Nancy Waymack, managing director of district policy for NCTQ, told EWA that ideally the next iteration of the report will dig deeper.

"There's an assumption that teachers are in class every day," Waymack said. "If that assumption isn't right and teachers aren't there, then we need to make sure we know why and get them back in class."

Indeed, NCTQ is breaking new ground with this report. In fact, the organization had to come up with its own definitions for teacher attendance (excellent attendance, moderate attendance, frequently absent, chronically absent) because none previously existed. "Chronically absent" was defined as missing at least 18 days, typically one-tenth of the school year, to keep it consistent with the terminology used by researchers to define a chronically absent student.

As the NCTQ report shows, teacher absences vary widely by region. In Portland, Ore., 28 percent of teachers are chronically absent (the fourth-worst record of the 40 districts surveyed by NCTQ). Principal Leslie O'Dell told The Oregonian that the long-term benefits of providing professional development can outweigh the short-term harm of disrupting classroom instruction. "It's directly supporting them when they come back into the classroom," O'Dell said. "It's a balancing act."

And in Cleveland, which had highest rate of teacher absenteeism of the 40 districts in the NCTQ report, the head of the district's teachers' union told The Plain Dealer that it was "completely unacceptable" to count professional development days against educators.

Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, said the NCTQ report illustrates that there's "a trade-off when you go for breadth, not depth." Because there isn't uniformity in how districts track and categorize teacher absences, Pallas urged caution in drawing conclusions - or making policy recommendations - based on the NCTQ report.

"There's a lot of ambiguity, and this kind of broad-brush approach runs the risk of blurring some important distinctions," Pallas said. "I wouldn't want to make inferences about the volume of absences without knowing what the causes are."

At the same time, Pallas said the NCTQ findings demonstrate that there is fertile territory for researchers to explore and if the report "spurs further inquiry, that's a good thing."

A 2008 paper by Harvard researchers found that on average teachers missed 10 instructional days over the course of the year. According to Raegan Miller, the leader author on that report, teacher absences hurt student performance. According to Miller's research, a teacher missing 10 days is the educational equivalent of a student being taught for the year by a novice teacher rather than one with three or four years of experience.

Miller noted that some findings of the NCTQ report run counter to past scholarship. For example, the nonprofit advocacy group argued that student poverty didn't have an effect on whether teachers were absent or not, but Miller says of NCTQ that "their analytical approach isn't capable of detecting that relationship" and that his research did find such a link between absence rates and school climate. So did this 2007 study by Duke University researchers. It looked at schools in North Carolina and concluded that "schools with persistently high rates of teacher absence were much more likely to serve low-income than high-income students."

But how do teachers' absences compare with the rest of workforce? EWA called experts at the federal Department of Labor, who told us the department doesn't have an analogue to the NCTQ report. However, they pointed us to recent surveys that capture the number of individuals per week who miss work for illness, medical problems, family obligations and maternity/paternity leave, among other reasons - broken down by profession. (Here's the unpublished breakdown provided to us by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey). Nationally, the absence rate for 2013 is at 2.9. Miller points out that while the methodologies are slightly different, NCTQ's findings and the ones he's viewed show a teacher absence rate of 6 percent: That's double the national average.

But are there factors specific to the teaching profession that lead to higher levels of time away from the classroom, outside of the required training and development days? Teachers, particularly in the lower grades, are in close contact with children - so are they more likely to catch colds and flu? Given that women are more likely than men to miss work due to family obligations, and since females make up about 75 percent of the nation's teachers, how many of them skipped school to take care of their own kids? Those are just some of the questions that still need to be answered.

Research suggests that students learn less when substitutes frequently take over a class. A team of scholars from Columbia found that the "average daily productivity loss from replacing regular teachers with 'long-term' substitutes is equivalent to replacing a teacher of average productivity with one at the 19th percentile in math and the 20th percentile in English." The effects are much more dire for students if their teachers miss work on or near testing days, the scholars note.

So what's next? Hedy Chang, executive director of AttendanceWorks, a national organization focused on raising awareness of, and reducing, student absenteeism, wants to see more research that explores whether there's a link between students who skip school and the attendance records of their teachers (the 2008 Harvard study mentioned earlier did find such a correlation).

Another question to be answered, said Chang: "Is the reason you get worse outcomes for teacher absenteeism because the students miss out on instruction, or is teacher absenteeism also indicative of a teacher who isn't as effective in the classroom?"

Or might teacher absences signal to the student something more dire: that they're not important?

"Kids notice," Chang said. "There's the issue of `if my teacher doesn't care enough to show up, why should I?' That's a perception that has to be addressed."