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Teacher Absenteeism: Looking Behind the Numbers

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The National Council on Teacher Quality’s district study of Pittsburgh Public Schools noted that the district had a significant number – 18 percent – of chronically absent teachers (those who are out of the classroom 18 days or more – after excluding those who were absent more than 10 consecutive days for surgery or family leave). For some of our followers, this begged the question “What was the cause of the absences”? (Hat tip to Rick Wertheimer for his thoughtful post on this.)

Professional Development Days Not the Whole Story

When you don’t include days missed for the category “Approved Absence Salaried” (ie. professional development or other responsibilities that take teachers out of the classroom), almost 30 percent of teachers in Pittsburgh were still absent 11 days or more. Eight percent of teachers continued to fall into the “chronically absent” category. 

PD Removed Bar Graph

As Eleanor Chute noted in her article when the data was released, one out of every four times teachers were out of class, it was to attend to other professional duties. Although taking time off for professional meetings and/or development can be valuable for teachers, it still takes them away from their students. 

Time away from the classroom, for any reason, negatively impacts students

Teacher absences are not uncommon in districts throughout the country (see the analysis of teacher attendance in 40 districts here). Information on reasons for teacher absences in Pittsburgh in school year 2012-2013 is listed below. 

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 2.41.15 PM

 The top three reasons for teacher absences in Pittsburgh are sick leave, approved absence salaried leave, and personal leave.

Chronically absent teachers pose a problem for districts. Missing 10 percent of the year or more – regardless of the legitimacy of the reasons (whether for sick days, which Article 144 of the collective bargaining agreement provides teachers 12 days sick leave per year, cumulative annually without limit and usable annually without limit, or professional development) – short-changes students. Research has shown a significant negative impact on student achievement in classrooms where the teacher is absent for ten days, regardless if the absences are consecutive or not. And these absences can have a devastating impact on students in our most vulnerable schools. See Jay Mathews “A startling waste of precious classroom time.”

Teacher absenteeism may be one of the most solvable problems schools face. Reducing the number of absent teachers presents fewer costs than already implemented school programs, curricula, and strategies to strengthen teacher quality. Moreover, efforts to strengthen teacher quality are nullified if teachers are absent often, despite the reason. Measures that promote accountability, such as the necessity of notifying a principal directly of absences, and the provision of professional development that does not conflict with classroom instruction, may help mitigate the problem. 

We will continue to monitor this issue over time to better understand the trends and patterns of teacher absences as this one year of data demands that we understand this issue on a long-term basis.