Public school teachers are absent from their classrooms an average of 6 percent of the time, according to a recent study released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).
"We may be missing one of the most obvious ways to improve teacher quality," Nancy Waymack from the NCTQ told me. Schools could improve education simply by ensuring regular teachers show up for work.
Of the teachers in the 40 districts surveyed during the 2012-2013 school year, 16 percent were "chronically absent." This means they missed 18 days or more, equaling about one in 10 days of a normal school year.
Teachers in Cleveland averaged 15.6 absences per year. In Indianapolis, they missed an average of six classes. According to the Center for American Progress, paying for substitute teachers adds up to at least $4 billion annually.
Most teachers took days off for sickness or personal business. But one in every five missed days was for school business and professional development. (This doesn't include long-term leave for illness or pregnancy, which was excluded from the study.)
Pulling teachers out of the classroom for training is a cost-saving tactic, even though schools must hire substitutes. It can cost more than $2 million a day to train teachers while school is not in session, according to Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality for the National Education Association. Waymack acknowledged that cost more than hiring substitute teachers. "But then there's the cost of student learning … [which] often gets missed when you're doing those cost benefit analyses," she said.
Many states allow substitutes to have nothing more than a high school diploma. More importantly, studies have shown that regular teachers' frequent absences hinder student learning. When a teacher misses more than 10 days of school, Waymack said, student learning substantially decreases.
A 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research paper reports that 10 days of teacher absence can have the same disruptive effect on students as changing schools entirely.
The NCTQ study acknowledged that teachers have demanding and stressful jobs, with long work hours in addition to the normal school day. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauds teachers for teaching as much as they do: "An overall 94 percent attendance rate shows the extraordinary dedication of teachers across the country."But the NCTQ report says districts need to re-examine teacher attendance incentives and policies because "teachers who are missing 10 percent of the school year, regardless of the legitimacy of their reasons, short-change their students."