David Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has released a new study that analyzes teacher absenteeism in public schools amidst renewed interest in this public policy issue as states formulate and submit their new ESSA accountability plans. Many states plan on using chronic student absenteeism as a measure of school quality—but what (this study asks) about chronic teacher absenteeism? Previous studies by R. Miller et al. (2007), C. Clotfelter et al. (2007), and M. Herrmann and J. Rockoff (2010) examined the relationship between teacher absenteeism and student achievement and found a strong connection between the two. In fact, there appears to be a one-to-one relationship: a ten-day increase in teacher absence results in at least a ten-day learning loss for students. Griffith’s research adds to this body of work by answering three primary questions:
The findings indicate that in 2013-14, more than one-quarter of public school teachers in the United States were “chronically absent” as defined by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights—meaning they missed more than ten days of school per year due to sick or personal leave. In some states, the numbers are truly shocking. For example, three-quarters of teachers in Hawaii were chronically absent.
As the report aptly states, “anyone who has never actually taught would be wise not to underestimate the challenges that teachers face, especially in high-poverty schools and those with many at-risk children. We begrudge no teacher for taking a ‘mental health day’ now and again, or needing to be home to care for a sick child of [their] own. Yet we also know that teachers are the single most powerful instrument that schools have to boost student learning. When teachers miss school, students miss out on education.”
Although the chronic absenteeism rate is markedly lower for charter school teachers than for traditional public school teachers, there is still a great deal of work to be done across the public education sector. From our own lives, we intuitively know that we do our best work when we have high levels of engagement, agency, and autonomy. The increased levels of autonomy and flexibility that is provided to charter schools (and charter school teachers) likely results in increased levels of engagement and lower levels of chronic absenteeism. Additional research on incentive systems that properly balance personal leave and the needs of students could help push the public education sector forward. However, this important piece of research sheds light on a public policy issue that directly impacts student achievement where charter schools are again making a difference.