We are an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.Learn More.

Teacher Absenteeism, Substitute Shortages, and Student Achievement

Albany Times Union reporter Bethany Bump recently published a story about absent teachers leaving local school districts scrambling for substitutes to fill the slots. FutureEd Research Director Raegen Miller adds his take on the issue and shares some of the research connecting absenteeism and student performance.

One Friday last month, 127 teachers in the Shenendehowa Central School District were absent from school.

Twenty-four were out for scheduled professional development, 44 called in sick and 59 took a personal day. District leaders had planned for the scheduled absences, but the high number of personal and sick days was unexpected, Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson admitted in an email to teachers later that day.

Teacher absence rates tend to be highest on Fridays, so substitutes are in shortest supply on that day of the week. To avoid creating absences for which subs may not be available,  many school districts avoid scheduling professional development on Fridays.

"Please keep in mind, there is no substitute to students learning from their own teacher," he wrote, adding that missing work for serious illness is "perfectly understandable."

The absences are not unique to the Clifton Park school system. School districts in the Capital Region and beyond are increasingly having trouble filling classrooms with high-quality teachers, due to a growing shortage of substitute teachers and frequent teacher absences caused by illness, caregiving duties and required training, among other things.

Even though Shenendehowa had a pool of 300 substitutes to draw from that October day, it was still left with 27 vacancies. When this happens, the district is forced to rely on teacher aides, special-content teachers and paraprofessionals to watch over a class.

Finding substitutes in not necessarily the answer. The instructional skills of substitute teachers are inferior, on average, to those of the regular teachers whose classes they’re likely to cover. Only 15 states  require substitutes to hold a bachelor's degree, a baseline requirement for teachers in all states. Moreover, substitutes often teach on brief notice, and without necessary tools, such as lesson plans and seating charts to keep the instructional ball rolling.

More than one in four of the nation's teachers are chronically absent, according to an estimate released last summer by the U.S. Department of Education. The rates are higher in poor, rural areas and major cities. Teachers are considered chronically absent if they miss more than 10 days of school—or the equivalent of two weeks of classes—a year.

The federal definition of chronically absent excludes absences tied to required professional development, which account for approximately 10 percent of all absences nationally. The threshold of “more than 10” days is somewhat arbitrary. It has an intuitive appeal, on display here in a newspaper article for a public audience, in that 10 days is two standard work weeks.

With research indicating that frequent teacher absences produce significantly worse student outcomes, several studies and advocacy groups have attempted to answer why it is that so many teachers are missing that much school. A 2007 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found a direct link between teachers who missed at least 10 days of school a year and worse student outcomes in elementary-level math.

In 2008 the peer-reviewed journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis published a version of this study using additional data, with impact estimates based on the average, cumulative effect of 10 days of absence, irrespective of the reasons behind them or whether the days occur in clusters or sporadically. Fourth grade students with teachers absent, say, 17 days before the spring administration of math achievement tests tended to score lower (3 percent of a standard deviation) than students of teachers absent just 7 days, controlling for a host of student, teacher, and school characteristics. Statistical techniques support the notion that the absences actually cause the lower achievement, and similar findings from two additional studies using the same techniques and data from different states and districts bolster the case.  

Teachers' unions contest the figures, saying it's unclear if the data count absences caused by professional development or in-school training. They also believe the data are easily skewed in a largely female profession in which women sometimes must miss school to care for sick children, sick parents or newborns. In small districts, just one or two teachers with prolonged absences could skew the data, they say.

Research indicates that it’s reasonable to expect chronic teacher absenteeism to show a positive relationship to the percentage of female teachers in a school, and to other factors like school size (they increase together, on average).

"I would start by rejecting — totally rejecting — the idea that there's a 'problem' with chronic teacher absenteeism," said New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn. "Teachers are professionals. They care about their students. They care about their communities. If you torture statistics long enough, you can make them say anything you want."

The caveats about the proportion of women in a school's workforce and school size notwithstanding, Korn's sweeping dismissal of the problem of teacher absenteeism doesn't wash. Teachers represent the greatest lever at schools’ disposal for driving student achievement, and paying them is schools’ largest expenditure. Moreover, research shows a correlation between teacher absenteeism and student performance, with part of the explanation attributable to the relative weakness of substitute teachers. Crucially, variation in rates of chronic teacher absenteeism among schools in the same district, which have the same policies on leaves-of-absence, may be explained in part by school climate and culture. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, many states plan to track school climate and culture using measures of student chronic absenteeism or surveys of students, families and staff

'People-intensive'

Most teacher contracts in the [Albany] Capital Region allow between 10 to 15 sick days a year, with 12 sick days being the average.

Economic theory and research spanning education and other industries support the idea that employees tend to use paid leave in proportion to their access to it, other things being equal. School districts in New York and elsewhere in the Northeast tend to offer generous levels of paid sick-leave. Shenendehowa’s policy is not remarkable in this sense, but it is in another. The collective bargaining agreement between its board and teachers’ association gives new teachers 11 sick days, but teachers with more than 3 years in the district just 9 days. While all Shenendehowa teachers can convert one of their 5.5 days of personal leave to sick-leave, the differentiated allotment may be intended to give new teachers a head-start in accumulating sick-leave.

In Shenendehowa, 307 out of 628 teachers—nearly half of all teachers—missed more than 10 days of school in the 2013-14 school year, the last year for which federal data are available. "Schools are always contending with absences, simply because of the mere fact that they are people-intensive organizations," Robinson said, adding that the absences last month were a "particular high count."

In the South Colonie Central School District, 158 teachers out of 356 missed more than 10 days of school in 2013-14 for a chronic absence rate of 44.4 percent. Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Tim Backus said the district reviewed its absence rate a few years ago when it noticed its numbers were getting high and found that much of the problem was self-inflicted.

"We discovered that a lot of it was us doing it to ourselves — we were pulling teachers out for planning and training, which are valuable things for a district in the long term, but can be painful in the short term," he said.

The federal measure of chronic teacher absenteeism excludes absences caused by required professional development. This exclusion makes sense on one level, but the impetus for this newspaper story was that too many absences on a single day, irrespective of the reason, creates an acute challenge for schools, which is correct.

During his review of absentee data, Backus said he was surprised to see one exceptional teacher had missed 17 days of school in a single year. When he dug deeper, he learned that 10 of those absences were from the district pulling her out of class to train other teachers.

News reports across the country indicate frequent teacher absences could be the result of a negative school culture — the theory that if you don't like where you work, you're more likely to call in sick.

But Backus and other educators are skeptical. When teachers do come to Backus requesting a day off, they often come as a last resort.

The majority of school districts use web-based tools for reporting of absences and assignment of substitutes, so face-to-face requests represent a weak basis for conclusions about school culture. That said, research shows that principals who complement their district’s web-based system with a requirement that teachers call them directly to report an absence tend to see lower rates of teacher absenteeism.

Call out for subs

His bigger problem, he said, is a lack of qualified substitute teachers. South Colonie, like other school districts in the region, relies heavily on substitute services offered by Capital Region BOCES. Using an Internet-based system, substitute and teacher databases, and priority lists, a help desk opens at 5:30 each morning to help districts fill last-minute absences.

But the pool of substitutes in the region and statewide has been shrinking, officials note. Between low pay, rising employment and a looming teacher shortage, the field is not as attractive and districts have become increasingly desperate to find substitutes.

The Mohonasen Central School District in Rotterdam hosted a job fair last week looking for substitutes who might be willing to work part-time and on a flexible schedule, and noted that candidates must possess a minimum of an associate's degree.

To be a substitute in New York, certification is strongly preferred but not required. Many districts require at least a bachelor's degree, but according to Capital Region BOCES, there are exceptions where candidates can possess a certain number of college credits.

As of last year, substitutes earned $80 to $100 a day, according to NYSUT. Backus said his substitutes earn $113 a day.

Due to the shortage, the state Board of Regents last summer relaxed rules allowing uncertified substitutes to remain teaching in classrooms beyond the previous 40-day limit, noting the move was meant to be a temporary fix for an urgent issue.

"I think until people are convinced that there's some security in the profession — that at the state and federal level there is some consistency with how we deal with education — they're just not going to go through a master's degree and teaching program knowing they could be laid off because of some law or regulation that seems kind of arbitrary," Backus said.

Read the published story here.