Report: Nearly 30 Percent of Public School Teachers Chronically Absent

Unionization plays role in shaping absentee rates

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September 20, 2017

Public school teachers are three times more likely to miss large chunks of school days than their peers at charter schools, which could hurt student learning, according to a new report.

An analysis by Thomas B. Fordham Institute senior research and policy associate David Griffith found that more than 28 percent of public school teachers miss at least 11 workdays a year.

Hawaii led the country in absenteeism with 79 percent of public school teachers taking off at least 10 days. Educators' truancy rates are far higher than those in other industries. An average teacher will take eight personal or sick days each year compared to the nationwide average of three-and-a-half, according to the report, titled, "Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools."

"The percentage of teachers in traditional public schools who take more than ten sick and personal days is almost four times higher than the percentage of employees in other industries who take at least ten sick days—despite the fact that teachers have significantly fewer work days than employees in other industries," the report says.

High absentee rates are unique among public school teachers. About 10 percent of charter school teachers are chronically absent from work—closer to the national average of 7.7 percent of workers with access to paid sick leave.

In states with extreme absentee rates the gap between the public and charter schools is more extreme. While nearly 80 percent of public school teachers use 10 or more sick days, fewer than one in four charter school teachers do so. American public school teachers also stack up unfavorably to teachers overseas, with between 4.4 and 5.2 percent of the workforce calling out sick on a typical school day compared to 3.2 percent of British and 3.1 percent of Australian educators.

The report also found that unionization played a role in shaping absentee rates. Teachers at unionized charter schools were twice as likely as those in non-union institutions to miss large chunks of workdays, though both fell below rates at public schools.

Nationally, union charter schools saw 18 percent of teachers exceed 10 sick days, compared to 9 percent in non-union shops. Green Dot, the largest network of fully unionized charter schools, has absentee rates three times higher than other leading charter school. Its Los Angeles charters experienced a 34 percent rate—eclipsing the 21 percent rate of the city's public schools.

Missing workdays can take its toll on students, as substitute teachers are less familiar with the classroom curriculum and student familiarity with the material. Other research has found that student achievement in mathematics falls 3.3 percent for every 10 days of absence by a primary teacher.

"From the students’ point of view, that’s an educational disaster from which few are likely to recover," the report says.

Green Dot disputed the conclusions of the report, saying the author used old data. It pointed to its analysis from the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent available, which showed a chronic absenteeism rate of 6 percent—below the national average for both charter schools and workers in other industries.

"While we appreciate that Fordham recognizes the excellence of our schools, Green Dot Public Schools (GDPS) and [its union] Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU) dispute both the accuracy and intent of this report," Green Dot and the union said in a joint statement. "We are of course, committed to further reducing chronic absenteeism in all of our schools."

UPDATE 2:15 P.M.: This article has been updated to include a response from Green Dot charter schools.

Published under: Education