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Which type of incentives prevent teacher absences?

27 percent of teachers missed 10 or more school days in the 2013-14 year
A study of teacher attendance in 40 of the nation’s largest districts found 16 percent of teachers were responsible for more than one third of all absences (Gettyimages.com: Mhj)
A study of teacher attendance in 40 of the nation’s largest districts found 16 percent of teachers were responsible for more than one third of all absences (Gettyimages.com: Mhj)

It’s no surprise that students suffer when their teacher is absent. Substitutes often lack familiarity with the curriculum and class dynamics.

What is surprising to learn is how often it happens. Twenty-seven percent of teachers missed 10 or more school days in the 2013-14 year for reasons unrelated to school activities, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Hearing such news “was like getting hit by a two-by-four,” says Nora Carr, chief of staff at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, where more than half the district’s teachers missed 10 or more days in a year.

And rates were especially high in certain schools, suggesting building-level changes could help. At the district’s middle schools, for instance, the percentage of teachers who missed 10 or more days ranged from 31 percent at one school to more than 75 percent at others.

A study of teacher attendance in 40 of the nation’s largest districts found 16 percent of teachers were responsible for more than one third of all absences, according to a 2014 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The report found teachers on average used slightly less than all of the sick and personal days offered to them over the course of the 2012-13 school year, which was typically 13 days.

Insurance, bonuses

Raegen Miller, a research fellow at Georgetown University who has studied the effects of teacher absences on students, notes that federal data on teacher absences was collected for the first time in 2009-10 and that policy changes have been slow to come.

Miller suggests districts try offering leave insurance for teachers in lieu of more sick days or require teachers to pay for the days they take off beyond a certain allotment, with that money going back to a teacher salary pool.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards recommends that districts allow teachers to carry over unused sick days from year to year to avoid a “use it or lose it” mentality. The group also suggests restricting the use of personal days, which could require contract negotiations, or simply requiring teachers to call the principal to report they’ll be absent, making it more likely they are being honest.

Bob Butler, the group’s associate executive director, also suggests districts look at how leave is structured and if that makes it more likely teachers will take the time off.

“Do people view it as insurance for when they’re ill or is it paid time off that they’re going to take?” he says.

Guilford County, which has offered bonuses in the past to help attract and retain faculty, is considering paying teachers extra for good attendance, a method that has had mixed results elsewhere.

For example, a 2006 pilot program in Florida’s Palm Beach County allowed teachers to cash out unused sick days and schools to earn bonuses for improving attendance rates. The program was scrapped after a year because absences at many schools increased, according to a report from Hanover Research, noting the collective reward system may not have been enough incentive.

On the other hand, Aldine ISD in Texas had success with a program in which it contributed more to teachers’ retirement plans based on good attendance, the Hanover report says. The program’s costs were more than offset by the decrease in substitute teacher stipends.

Abby Spegman is a freelance writer based in Washington.