Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Look at Teacher Absences

Teaching the nation’s students is expensive. Some 3.1 million teachers lead U.S. classrooms, earning annual salaries of $56,400 on average. Throw in benefits and the tab rises even higher.

And when a teacher can’t make it to work, additional help has to be brought in, typically in the form of a substitute teacher. That also costs money: Federal labor data indicate that the median wage for a substitute teacher is nearly $12.50 an hour – which is on top of the salary the absent teacher is collecting. While average teacher absences vary by district, nationally some 5 percent of teachers are absent on a given school day. Another estimate from 2012 calculated that U.S. schools spend $4 billion on substitute teachers.

Beyond the expenses associated with teachers missing work, a growing body of research suggests students lose out on learning the more days their teachers are absent. In short: teachers missing work for reasons beyond professional development has an effect on our country’s academics and fiscal bottom line.

A blog item at Education Week takes a stab at trying to account for the “leave-taking behavior” of teachers, homing in on professional culture in schools as one important variable. Raegen Miller, the item’s author and a major academic contributor to the scholarship on teacher absences, looked at the most recent federal Civil Rights Data Collection figures and calculated that in the average school, a quarter of teachers were absent for 10 or more days during the school year. He also found that nearly half of the variation in teacher absences is between schools governed by the same district or state.

The upshot? School leaders and district or state policies can greatly influence teacher attitudes about missing work, and much of the teacher absence rate is concentrated in a smaller group of instructors. There’s also this caveat: The data are imperfect, but the set is the only nationwide comparison of teacher absences.

In June EWA reported on a study that found 16 percent of teachers accounted for one-third of all absences in the 40 largest school districts. That small group missed 10 percent of all instructional days. Our own reporting shows that the absence rate of teachers in those largest districts is double the average for the entire U.S. workforce, though methodologies to come by those rates are different. That same article also explored the body of literature that linked teacher absences to hampered student achievement.

In a separate article we demonstrated that in the last decade district offices have added senior personnel at a rate much faster than the hiring of additional teachers. Are these the staffers who are to help school systems address teacher absences?

Of course, teachers aren’t to blame for missing work. As the June article noted, there can be many explanations for why teachers are absent more often than workers, none of which should be used to impugn the profession’s care or commitment to its students. Education Week explored this issue in 2012, quoting a senior union analyst who said the substitute teacher corps should be professionalized so that students don’t skip a beat when their teachers are out. 

Additional Reading:

When Good Principals Leave

The High Cost of Teacher Turnover

Turning Attention to Teacher Turnover

Compelling Principal Stories – It Can Be Done

And … Deep Dives on School Leadership, Teacher Workforce and K-12 Finance



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