Teachers in the USA's largest school districts missed an average of 11 days, according to a report on teacher attendance released Tuesday.
The study from the National Council on Teacher Quality looked at attendance for more than 234,000 teachers in 40 districts during the 2012-13 year and found that 16% of all teachers were classified as chronically absent because they missed 18 days or more.
"While these big-city school districts are struggling to improve student achievement, they may be overlooking one of the most basic aspects of teacher effectiveness: every teacher being regularly on the job, teaching kids," said Kate Walsh, president of the Washington think tank that advocates for reform in recruiting, retaining and compensating teachers. It receives its money from private foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The study found that Seattle had 41.3% of teachers who were frequently absent.
Nancy Waymack, the council's managing director for district policy and co-author of the report, said teacher absences affect student achievement.
"No matter how engaging or talented they are, teachers can only have an impact if they are in the classroom," she said.
Among the cities with the lowest average teacher absences: Indianapolis; Washington, D.C.; Louisville; Milwaukee; and Tampa. Those with the highest teacher absences were Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Nashville; Portland, Ore.; and Jacksonville.
"Most of the time, teachers are showing up like clockwork. They have a 94% attendance rate at the districts we studied, but it varies significantly from teacher to teacher," Waymack said.
While some may find fault with teachers in the report, "an overall 94% attendance rate shows the extraordinary dedication of teachers across the country who come to school each day ready and excited to teach," said President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.
"This kind of stability is what our kids need to succeed," she said.
Officials in Columbus schools, which had 68.2% of its teachers absent for more than 10 days during the school year — the worst of all districts studied — said they would revisit their policies immediately and look at other school systems that do well in this area.
The National Education Association said it would like to have seen data on chronically absent teachers for more than one school year.
"Teacher absences are unavoidable," Segun Eubanks, the NEA's director of teacher quality, said in a statement. "There will be illnesses, professional development opportunities and other avoidable, but legitimate reasons for teacher absence. We should certainly focus on ways to improve teacher attendance and avoid unnecessary teacher absences, but we also should focus equally on preparing for these absences" and set high standards for substitute teachers.
The study, based on an average 186-day school year, did not include long-term absences for serious illness or maternity and paternity leave. It broke down short-term absences into four categories: excellent attendance, three or fewer days absent; moderate attendance, four to 10 days absent; frequently absent, 11 to 17 days; and chronically absent, more than 18 days.
It found that 16% of teachers overall had excellent attendance and 40% had moderate attendance while 28% were frequently absent and 16% were chronically absent.
In the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where two-thirds of teachers missed more than 10 days during the school year, officials say they have started cracking down on absences.
"We knew we had to address teacher attendance as a major priority when our new leadership team took over a few years ago," said Michelle Pierre-Farid, chief academic officer in Cleveland. "Our goal is to raise achievement for all of our students. There is no substitute for a great teacher. We want them in school every day."
Pierre-Farid said her district began motoring absences every eight weeks and has started using incentives for teachers.
"As part of our differentiated compensation package with the union, if a teacher has 95% attendance or greater, they can get a stipend," she said. "And now that we are monitoring the absences more carefully, they aren't calling in as much. It's still a work in progress, but we feel better about it now than we did a few years ago."
In Louisville, Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer of Jefferson County Public Schools said many of his district's schools offer incentives to increase teacher attendance and absences are considered in promotions. The district was among the five school systems with the fewest teachers taking more than 10 days off.
"Attendance in both engagement and presence is crucial," he said.
The absences also cost money: The 40 districts spent about $424 million for substitute teachers.
"When you have a substitute, they don't know the children, their learning needs or the curriculum as well as a regular teacher," said Principal Stephen Tyra of Bowen Elementary School in Louisville. "Despite their best efforts, it's often a diminished day compared to having the regular teacher in class."
One practice that seems to be effective in discouraging absences is having a teacher "actually talk to the principal when calling in as opposed to calling in or logging on to a substitute teacher line," Waymack said.
The study also looked at the factors influencing teacher attendance and the effect of high-poverty schools on teacher absences.
Nearly 55% of teachers across the 40 districts taught in schools where at least 80% of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch.
"In spite of previous research to the contrary, we did not find a relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of children in the school," Waymack said.
In addition, districts with formal policies to discourage teacher absenteeism do not appear to have better attendance rates than those without such policies, a finding that suggests that the most common policies are not particularly effective, she said.
Antoinette Konz also reports for The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal.