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One-Quarter of School Teachers in the U.S. Are Chronically Absent, According to Study

It’s a fact that students aren’t going to be learning much without a teacher in the classroom. And according to a new study by the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, the gap between absenteeism in teachers in charter schools versus traditional public schools is rather wide. Pulling data from federal sources as well as charter and teacher groups, the study found that public school teachers are three times as likely to be absent from the classroom than those teaching in charter schools.

On average, teachers are afforded 12 sick or personal days a year (only one-third of U.S. workers are entitled to 10 or more sick days) with 28.3 percent of teachers in public schools missing at least 10 days throughout the school year. The rate of absenteeism among teachers in charter schools was significantly lower with just 10.3 percent of teachers missing 10 days a year. When comparing unionized charter schools versus non-unionized charter schools, 18 percent of teachers in unionized charter schools were chronically absent. Just nine percent of teachers in non-unionized charter schools were absent at least 10 days a year.

So why such a gap in the rate of chronic absenteeism between teachers in traditional public schools versus charter schools? In short, how much a teacher is absent from the classroom essentially comes down to how much they’re permitted to be absent and school culture. At least that’s the takeaway according to the study’s author, David Griffith.

Griffith writes that "[b]ecause they can’t easily be fired, district teachers can use all their sick and personal days (and get paid for it) without worrying about what their principal or department head will think. But charter school teachers don’t have that luxury."

By contrast, the study suggests that in charter schools, particularly those that are non-unionized, without state law and local bargaining agreements affording traditional public school teachers job and tenure protection, educators are less likely to miss work. Griffith also accounts for teachers in charter schools having lower rates of chronic absenteeism based on the cultural norm of the school. "Many charter schools are founded on the premise that 'no excuses' will be tolerated from either students or teachers. And in keeping with that ideal, this study shows that chronic absenteeism is almost nonexistent at some of the nation’s leading charter networks."

The president of the National Council on Teacher Quality Kate Walsh, whose group has also researched teacher absenteeism, is not convinced that collective bargaining figures as prominently as Griffith suspects. Walsh thinks that the autonomy enjoyed by most charters allow them to more quickly identify and address the issue of chronically absent staff, unlike traditional public schools that operate within challenging bureaucratic frameworks. "It’s like comparing a small shop to IBM," she said to Education Week. Another shortcoming of the report's conclusions centers around the lack of data comparing chronic absenteeism among non-tenured traditional public school teachers and charter school teachers, who are more likely to be in the same age group and at similar points in their careers.

Sick and personal day policies differ from district to district and can have an impact on teacher absenteeism. In Arizona, for example, teachers in traditional public schools were twice as likely to be chronically absent than teachers in charter schools. Whereas in Nevada, traditional public school teachers were seven times more likely to be chronically absent. The trend was the same when comparing data from the 10 largest cities in the 35 states. Chronic absenteeism was four times more likely among public school teachers in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. The only state out of the 35 and the District of Columbia with sizeable charter school populations that proved an exception to the trend was Alaska where charter school teachers had a higher rate of chronic absenteeism.

Now, of course, teachers get sick, they have their own children who get sick, and sometimes they just need a "personal mental health day" to rebound from the stress and long hours that come with the job. The study’s author acknowledges that upfront and begrudges no teacher for taking their allotted days off. With student chronic absenteeism being addressed in so many state ESSA plans though, Griffith says teacher absenteeism is another piece of the puzzle. He goes on to say that with the study’s findings he can’t help but imagine what traditional public schools "could accomplish with a chronic absenteeism rate of 10 percent."

It should be noted that the American Federation of Teachers union had harsh words for the study calling it "flawed" and a "snapshot that doesn’t support an apples-to-apples comparison." Their statement also alluded to the high teacher-turnover rates at charter schools. You can read the AFT’s full rebuttal here.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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