Several recent studies showing the negative impact of teacher absences on student achievement, plus rising substitute costs, have prompted some districts to offer teachers incentives to reduce the number of days they take off. Included: Examples of incentive plans.
The notions that students learn more and perform better on tests when they consistently have the same full-time, certified teachers in their classrooms are neither surprising nor groundbreaking. What is somewhat new is research indicating how much of a negative impact teacher absenteeism can have on student learning, especially for poor and minority children. Those findings come at a time when many districts are experiencing, for whatever reasons, increases in teacher absenteeism and the related rise in spending for hiring substitute teachers.
All principals have to cope with the occasional teacher who is out on long-term sick or maternity leave. But some districts are so concerned about the effect the rising number of daily teacher absences is having on student learning and the bottom line that they have devised financial incentives to nudge teachers into re-thinking taking a day off. The hope is that the more days teachers are in the classrooms, the better prepared students will be.
Teacher absenteeism is drawing more scrutiny as districts and states scramble for ways to cut costs and increase student achievement. A study released in October 2008 by the Center for American Progress, Tales of Teacher Absence: New Research Yields Patterns that Speak to Policymakers, reports that every school day approximately 5 percent of teachers will be absent from school and replaced by a substitute. The high number of absences costs districts billions of dollars annually and takes a toll on student learning, the report noted. Also, the study found that teachers are typically absent nine or ten days per year. That means that between kindergarten and 12th grade, students are taught by someone other than their regular teacher for the equivalent of two-thirds of a school year.
Another recent report, Reducing Teacher Absenteeism, prepared for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), noted that at the local level, substitute teacher expenses may constitute a full 1 percent of some districts annual budgets.
Other studies cite the extent to which teacher absences can delay or derail student learning. Are Teacher Absences Worth Worrying About in the U.S.?, a study by Duke University professor of economics Charles Clotfelter and several other researchers, revealed that in North Carolina at least, teachers in low-income schools tended to use one more sick day a year than those in higher-performing schools. In addition, schools that served low-income students had higher teacher absenteeism, and high teacher absenteeism was tied to lower student achievement.
The WASB report also cites research showing correlations between the number of teacher absences and a percentage drop in student performance. Newer research has tended to find a correlation between teacher attendance and student achievement, the WASB report noted.
"We know how important it is for teachers to be in the classrooms with students, and we know how students lose out when teachers aren't there," said Donna Porter, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Carthage (Texas) Independent School District, which started an incentive program last year.
In addition, many schools with teaching vacancies, particularly low-achieving schools, have been forced to rely on long-term substitutes for up to a year, which also can hinder student learning. Some administrators are hopeful that attendance incentives will have the added benefits of helping to recruit and retain teachers.
In addition to wanting to bump up student achievement, the rising expenditures for substitute teachers -- not to mention difficulty finding subs, even short-term ones -- prompted Carthage district officials to launch an incentive program in 2007. All of the districts in this area are having trouble getting substitutes, Porter told Education World. "Most of the people in this area [who might have been subs] have gone into the oilfields."
The districts plan offered every teacher who had perfect attendance for the year a share of a $5,000 pool of money. At the end of last year, 20 teachers had perfect attendance, up from one the previous year, and overall teacher attendance improved, Porter told Education World. The district also offered to buy back up to five district personal days from teachers at $50 per day. Each teacher gets 15 days per year for sick and personal time; the total includes five days the state provides every school district employee.
The program is being offered again this year, but if the number of teachers with perfect attendance keeps rising, the amount of money each receives will decrease, reducing the incentive. The districts board of education plans to review the program at the end of this school year, Porter added.
Since an earlier incentive program did little to decrease absenteeism, the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District launched a retooled attendance incentive program this year with enhanced benefits. Called the Staff and Teacher Attendance Reward (STAR) program, it is designed not only to keep teachers in school, but also to encourage them to save more for retirement. The plan also is open to other district employees.
"Now we are strictly targeting attendance," said Marita Hawkins, director of the districts benefits office. "We're still trying to save some money, but we want to improve student performance by improving teacher attendance. Teacher attendance is a factor in graduation."
For teachers who have only one absence during the school year, the district matches 100 percent of their contribution to a district retirement account, up to $1,000 annually. Teachers who are out two days can get a 75 percent match, up to $700, and those with three to five absences earn a 50 percent match, up to $500 a year.
"We're trying to cut down on teachers who take three or four days off here and there," Hawkins noted. Dale Kaiser, president of NEA-Dallas, said the plan offers a nice incentive, but teachers still don't get compensated adequately for unused sick days. When teachers retire, they are paid a daily rate for unused days based on the total number of unused days for that year and the amount the district budgeted for unused days, so teachers could get the equivalent of a few dollars per day, Kaiser said.
District officials are hopeful the plan will save Dallas $2,197,891 this year in substitute teaching costs. The district set up the plan based on data from 2005-2006. That year the district spent $11,518,000 on substitute teachers; the average teacher was absent 10.08 days.
The previous incentive plan, called the Teacher Employee Recruitment-Retention program, started in 2003, offered lower matching amounts for contributions to retirement savings and was not overly popular. Officials analyzed the results after three years and determined that while teacher retirement savings and teacher retention improved, the program did not reduce absenteeism.
Officials in the Sapulpa (Oklahoma) Public Schools are hopeful that the chance to share in the savings from lower absentee rates will motivate teachers to take off fewer days.
The board has been looking for every avenue for cost savings, Dr. Mary Webb, district superintendent, told Education World. "We are looking to save several hundred thousand dollars [with this plan]."
Officials first determined that the district spent about $200,000 last year on substitutes for short-term illnesses and emergency days off. If the district saves half that amount this year ($100,000) then $50,000 will be distributed among employees who are absent five days or fewer, with the amount of money earned determined by the number of school days they missed. District teachers are paid for unused sick time when they retire.
If the district reaches its goal of saving $100,000, then the school with the best attendance based on a percentage will receive a $3,000 bonus. The schools faculty can decide how to spend the money.
"Maybe this will tip the should-I-go- in-or-not scale to going in," Webb told Education World. "The incentives also are a good way to reward teachers who consistently have had good attendance," she added.
Administrators also are hopeful better teacher attendance pays off in the classroom. An important purpose of the plan is to improve the education of students with the belief that student instruction is more beneficial with regular teachers and support staff in place, according to an outline of the program.
"It's a no-lose plan," Webb added. "Whatever we save is split."
Not all incentive packages, though, are successful. The School District of Palm Beach County (Florida) canceled an incentive plan after one year because it neither generated savings nor improved teacher attendance in most schools. In several schools, teacher absenteeism actually increased.
This was one attempt to use an incentive for teachers not to use as many sick days, said Van Ludy, a former teacher who is now director of labor relations for the district.
The program was complex and included two plans, one for reducing individual absenteeism and another for reducing the number of sick days the faculty in a school used. Under the individual plan, each teacher who used no more than three of the first five sick days earned a year could get paid for two days. Teachers could get paid for a maximum of five days, but they only were paid at 80 percent of the daily rate. At the school level, if the number of faculty sick days was fewer than the previous year, the faculty in that school would get a portion of the amount saved on substitute pay.
Participation in the program was not as extensive as district officials had wanted, partly because it was finalized right before school started, so some schools and individuals did not sign up until November. The initiative also was not promoted effectively or extensively, Ludy said.
Helene Samango, executive director and chief negotiator for the Palm Beach Classroom Teachers Association, said she thought that poor communication and the design of the program were among the reasons it didn't draw more teachers.
I think it was too difficult for people to follow, Samango told Education World. "They came up with a convoluted form. The demands were too high and the rewards insufficient. Also, it was not communicated well by the district or us. A lot of people didn't realize it was out there. The school-wide incentive was a little more successful."
District officials are willing to try again. "We're still open to other ideas -- the administration brought it up with the union," Ludy noted. "Teacher absenteeism continues to be a problem, and it's an increasing problem. We continue to see more teachers use more sick days each year."
A National Education Association (NEA) official, though, said she does not like the idea of attendance incentive programs, because their existence suggests teachers are abusing their allotment of sick and personal days.
"I think abuse [of paid time off] is quite rare -- if a teacher is not there, it could be because of illness, issues with child care, or with elder care," said Linda Davin, a senior policy analyst in the NEA's teacher quality department. "In some cases, environmental factors in a building could be making faculty members ill," she said.
But if absences are increasing in a school, then it is up to the principal to try to find a pattern and address the problem. "It seems to me this would be an issue of teacher working conditions," she added. "They need to look at teacher working conditions, and address the cause of the absences."
Part of that would include examining the culture, climate, and leadership in the school, according to Davin. "You have to look at what's going on in districts and in schools. You have to analyze the reasons behind the absences and see if you can understand the reasons. Also, a principal also has to inspire and make it clear that is important to come to work every day."
Some district and union officials speculated that younger teachers often have difficulty understanding the need to save time and money for retirement and that could be contributing to more teacher absenteeism in some districts or schools.
"We have noticed that it is hard for some teachers to envision retirement," Webb said. "An incentive could get right to the heart of the matter.
A lot of people think, I'm entitled to ten days [a year], so I'm taking ten days," added Hawkins of the Dallas district. "But once those days are exhausted, they don't get paid."
Both Kaiser and Ludy said they have noticed a generational difference in how paid time off is viewed.
"When I taught, there was an understanding that sick leave was something you wanted to save. You thought of it as a savings account, not a checking account," said Ludy. "You used it if you got really sick and then got paid for the days you didn't use when you retired. You used to have to be sicker than you do now. Now they [teachers] use sick time as fast as they earn it. Is that wrong? It's different. It's a different view of sick leave. Not much time is accumulating."
The number of teachers calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays has particularly been increasing, Ludy added, especially before and after three-day weekends. "The Friday and Tuesday around Labor Day -- we saw lots of sick days."
Younger teachers do tend to use their sick time more regularly, Kaiser noted, and in the high school in which he taught, the demand for subs was particularly high on Mondays and Fridays. The union has addressed that. "We're trying to encourage people by saying unless you absolutely have to be out, you should be in class," Kaiser told Education World. "They can't just think of themselves. They have to think about their students, because no matter how good a substitute is, the substitute isn't as good as they are."
At the same time, teaching has become much more stressful, and multiple pressures could lead to more absences, he said.
More veteran teachers, he said, are reluctant to call in sick, and in some cases have postponed taking a day or two off to go to a doctor until their condition worsened to the point where they had to be absent for a longer period of time.
"The fact that teachers in Palm Beach now just have to call and leave a message saying they will be absent, rather than speak to an administrator, also may make it easier for teachers to use sick time," Ludy said.
The long hours and increased pressures on teachers also are likely factors in teacher absenteeism, several said. "Teaching is so stressful, and I can understand that," said Webb. "We're just saying if you can be there, be there."
Samango and Davin both said that job stress for teachers has escalated over the past few years and probably is taking a toll on teachers' physical and mental well-being.
I think teachers are very stressed, because of all the negative things that can happen if they don't do well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (FCATs), if they don't meet No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards. Principals want to keep their schools' rating, and there are parental pressures, Samango told Education World. "People are concerned about their jobs because of the economy. When I go home at 7, 7:30 at night and pass schools, I still see cars in the parking lots. That all adds to the attendance problems."
"All the stress teachers endure could depress their immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness," Davin noted. "Teachers also don't have the luxury of hiding behind a computer terminal all day if they don't feel well, as other workers do. Teaching is a very different job; it's an active job, with no time during the day to take time for yourself, and it is hard to teach if you are sick, she continued. We also don't want teachers to come in sick."
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