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 (excerpts)
On any given school day, up to 40 percent of teachers in New Jersey’s Camden City Public Schools are absent from their classrooms. Such a high figure probably would not stand out in parts of the developing world, but it contrasts sharply with the 3 percent national rate of absence for full-time wage and salaried American workers, and the 5.3 percent rate of absence for American teachers overall. Certainly, it isn’t unreasonable for Camden residents to expect lower rates of teacher absence, particularly when the district annually spends top dollar—more than $22,000 per pupil—to educate its students. And advocates for students of color, who constitute 99.5 percent of the district’s enrollment, could potentially use these new data from the Department of Education to support a civil rights complaint.
Beginning in 2009 the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education included a new item on its biennial Civil Rights Data Collection survey—teacher absences.7 Notwithstanding concerns about equity, attention to this issue is appropriate for two reasons:
• First, teachers are the most important school-based determinant of students’ academic success. It’s no surprise researchers find that teacher absence lowers student achievement.8
• Second, resources are scarce, and any excess of funds tied up in teacher absence, which costs at least $4 billion annually,9 should be put to better use.
This report uses the Civil Rights Data Collection dataset released in early 2012 to raise questions and drive debate about the subject of teacher absence. This dataset comes from the first national survey to include school-level information on teacher absence. The measure constructed from this information is the percentage of teachers who were absent more than 10 times during the year. The Department of Education calls the measure a “leading indicator,” a reasonable label given the documented relationship between absence rates measured at the teacher level and student achievement. Yet very little is known about the properties of this new school-level measure.
On average, 36 percent of teachers nationally were absent more than 10 days during the 2009-10 school year based on the 56,837 schools analyzed in the dataset. The percentages reported by individual schools range from 0 percent to 100 percent, with 62 percent of the variation in the measure occurring between districts and a third occurring within districts. The latter statistic is significant because all schools within a given district operate under the same leave policies, and teacher absence levels well above a district average may be a symptom of a dysfunctional professional culture at the building level.
State averages on the novel Civil Rights Data Collection measure of teacher absence range from a low of 20.9 percent in Utah to a high of 50.2 percent in Rhode Island. A ranking of states on page 8 raises questions about the wisdom of some states’ teacher absence policies.
This report also notes that teacher absence is yet another item that can be added to the list of ways in which charter schools differ from traditional public schools. Teachers are absent from traditional public schools more than 10 times per year at a rate that is 15.2 percentage points higher than in charter schools.
A school’s grade-level configuration provides some indication of its teachers’ absence behavior. An average of 33.3 percent of teachers were absent more than 10 days in high schools. The corresponding figures for elementary and middle schools are 36.7 percent and 37.8 percent, respectively. In this sense, this novel measure tracks conventional rates of absence constructed from teachers’ daily absence records.
This report also supplies evidence that students in schools serving high proportions of African American or Latino students are disproportionately exposed to teacher absence. Holding constant the grade-level and whether a school is a charter, a school with its proportion of African American students in the 90th percentile has a teacher absence rate that is 3.5 percentage points higher than a school in the 10th percentile. The corresponding differential based on percentages of Latino students is 3.2 percentage points.
With these and other findings, this report seeks to draw attention to the too long-neglected subject of teacher absence. The costs of teacher absence, both in financial and academic terms, can no longer be borne in silence. The abundance of variation in teacher absence behavior, both between districts and within, means that there is room in many districts and individual schools for teachers to have adequate access to paid leave while being absent less frequently….
The absence culture
The professional culture of a school—the norms, formal and informal, that guide teachers’ behavior—has a facet related to absence. Researchers have studied this facet, the so-called absence culture, along two dimensions. The first has to do with how similarly teachers behave to one another. One study found, for example, collusive behavior among teachers in one school as an explanation for its consistently high absence rates relative to rates found in neighboring schools. Researchers in Australia found that an increase in the average absence rate of a teacher’s colleagues increased the teacher’s own absence tally.
The second dimension of absence culture focuses on trust among staff. Trust can be framed as the degree of professional autonomy enjoyed by teachers. Absences in low-trust settings can represent a “deviant” or “calculative” mindset, depending how much tug the culture has on teachers’ behavior. Such behavior in the realm of absence hardly sounds conducive to school improvement, and it underscores broader concern with trust in the research literature on school improvement and in practical matters such as states’ applications for competitive federal grants under the Race to the Top program.
Researchers consistently find two patterns in the timing of teachers’ absences. First, teachers are absent most frequently on Mondays and Fridays. Second, a high proportion of absences due to illness occur in blocks of time short enough that no medical certification is required.….
Ranking teacher absence by state
Mean, median, and rank-order by mean of the percentage of teachers absent more than 10 days, by state, along with number of schools
State Mean Median Number of schools Mean Rank
HI 49.6 60.9 207 2nd worst in USA
A glimpse behind state averages
Georgia and Texas have similar means of 34.1 and 33.7, respectively, ranking 32nd and 35th among all states. Texas, however, has a lower median. A larger share of Texas’s schools than Georgia’s schools has high percentages of teachers absent more than 10 days. The difference appears as the variance in the thickness of the right-hand tails of the distributions depicted on page 10 (Figures 2a and 2b). Based on the otherwise similar distributions, it’s reasonable to speculate that the combination of state and local policies concerned with teacher absence are fairly similar—and prudent—in these two states.
Hawaii and Michigan also have similar means of 49.6 and 45.6, which ranks them near the top of the heap, but it would rash to imagine that these states have similar policy regimes. Their distributions of schools’ values on the absence measure couldn’t be more different. (see Figures 2c and 2d) With a median substantially higher than its mean, Hawaii’s distribution is somewhat bi-modal. One cluster of schools has very low rates; the rest have values concentrated at the high end of the range.
It would be reasonable to hypothesize that absence cultures in Hawaii’s schools exert a strong influence on individual teachers’ behavior. In some schools this means it’s rare for any teacher to be absent more than 10 days; in others, the majority of teachers miss school frequently. Michigan’s distribution of values, in contrast, is fairly uniform. Thus, there might be a fuller spectrum of absence cultures in Michigan….
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