Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools

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David Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has released a new study that analyzes teacher absenteeism in public schools amidst renewed interest in this public policy issue as states formulate and submit their new ESSA accountability plans. Many states plan on using chronic student absenteeism as a measure of school quality—but what (this study asks) about chronic teacher absenteeism? Previous studies by R. Miller et al. (2007), C. Clotfelter et al. (2007), and M. Herrmann and J. Rockoff (2010) examined the relationship between teacher absenteeism and student achievement and found a strong connection between the two. In fact, there appears to be a one-to-one relationship: a ten-day increase in teacher absence results in at least a ten-day learning loss for students. Griffith’s research adds to this body of work by answering three primary questions:

  1. How do chronic absenteeism rates for teachers in charter and traditional public schools compare—nationally, state-by-state, and within the nation’s ten largest cities?
  2. To what degree do collective bargaining laws and teacher contracts shed light on the variation observed at the state level?
  3. How do chronic absenteeism rates for teachers in unionized and non-unionized charter schools compare?

The findings indicate that in 2013-14, more than one-quarter of public school teachers in the United States were “chronically absent” as defined by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights—meaning they missed more than ten days of school per year due to sick or personal leave. In some states, the numbers are truly shocking. For example, three-quarters of teachers in Hawaii were chronically absent.

Research Findings:

  1. Nationally, teachers in traditional public schools are almost three times as likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter schools.
    • Twenty-eight percent of teachers in traditional public schools missed more than ten school days per year for sick or personal leave (this is apart from all school holidays and summer vacation, as well as professional development days). In contrast, just 10.3 percent of teachers in charter schools were chronically absent.
    • In 34 of the 35 states with sizable charter sectors, teachers in traditional public schools were more likely to be chronically absent than teachers in charter schools (Alaska was the exception).
    • In each of the nation’s ten largest cities, teachers in traditional public schools were more likely to be chronically absent than teachers in charter schools.
  2. The chronic absenteeism gap between charter and traditional district public schools is largest in states where districts must bargain collectively (meaning they’re unionized), but charter schools aren’t required to.
    • In the thirteen states (plus D.C.) where districts must bargain collectively, but charter schools need not, the gaps between the two sectors were especially large. On average, the chronic absenteeism rate for district teachers in these jurisdictions was three times higher than the rate for charter school teachers.
  3. Nationally, teachers in unionized charter schools are twice as likely to be chronically absent as teachers in non-unionized charter schools.
    • Eighteen percent of teachers in unionized charter schools were chronically absent, versus 9 percent of teachers in non-unionized charter schools.
    • In all of the six states with significant numbers of both unionized and non-unionized charter schools (California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin), the chronic absenteeism rate was higher for teachers in unionized charter schools.

As the report aptly states, “anyone who has never actually taught would be wise not to underestimate the challenges that teachers face, especially in high-poverty schools and those with many at-risk children. We begrudge no teacher for taking a ‘mental health day’ now and again, or needing to be home to care for a sick child of [their] own. Yet we also know that teachers are the single most powerful instrument that schools have to boost student learning. When teachers miss school, students miss out on education.”

Although the chronic absenteeism rate is markedly lower for charter school teachers than for traditional public school teachers, there is still a great deal of work to be done across the public education sector. From our own lives, we intuitively know that we do our best work when we have high levels of engagement, agency, and autonomy. The increased levels of autonomy and flexibility that is provided to charter schools (and charter school teachers) likely results in increased levels of engagement and lower levels of chronic absenteeism. Additional research on incentive systems that properly balance personal leave and the needs of students could help push the public education sector forward. However, this important piece of research sheds light on a public policy issue that directly impacts student achievement where charter schools are again making a difference.