Is Teacher Attendance in Crisis?


Absenteeism among teachers has garnered attention in numerous reports over the last several years, with estimates of chronically absent teacher rates ranging from 16 to 20 percent. Some attribute frequent absences to chronic health issues–including burnout. Many of these studies have investigated the influence of educator well-being and attendance on student outcomes, finding that poor teacher attendance has a direct negative correlation with student outcomes. While educator health and attendance are related, many educator absences are neither health-related nor within educators’ director control. Rather, they are caused by school systems themselves.

Data from the 2017 Annual Report on Employee Absence and Substitute Data from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute suggest that 17% of all staff absences and a whopping 22% of teacher absences are actually a result of professional obligations outside the classroom such as professional learning, alternative assignments, or other work-related tasks that take teachers away from instruction. In other words, schools and districts could significantly reduce the burden of absences by better managing the non-instructional time commitments required of teachers. Many other absences related to normal personal obligations may not be avoidable, but professionally-related absences can be reduced or more strategically structured  to reduce impact on students.

The data indicate that while educators and school leaders may be planning professional responsibilities well in advance, they frequently fall on non-strategic absence days when the substitute pool is oversubscribed. Carefully planning professionally-related absences so they fall on days when fewer educators are absent (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are marked by absence rates 2-3% lower than other days) can help ensure substitute teachers are available when needed. Our data also show that although these absences are planned well in advance, they are often not reported until less than a week before they take place. Over 30% of professionally-related absences were reported within four days of the planned absence. In cases with such short notice, the rate at which substitutes could be found and placed in classrooms dropped by 12%. By communicating planned absences well in advance, educators can alleviate challenges with substitute placement or opportunities to combine like classes and reduce potential losses in student learning time.

In addition to a high rate of chronic absenteeism, teaching actually has a high rate of perfect attendance–a fact this is often omitted from reports touting excessive rates of chronic absenteeism and often neglected in most attention to teacher absence. About 17% of teachers each year do not miss a single day of school. With nearly a fifth (19%) of educators achieving perfect attendance when professionally-related absences are excluded, the field enjoys a rate that matches the national average. So while some educators are missing school days for reasons ranging from illness to professional learning, the field may not be experiencing quite the crisis in chronic absenteeism that recent reports suggest. Rather, there may be a subset of educators who are facing specific challenges requiring them to be away from their classrooms that could be addressed through a variety of structural and responsibility changes.

Data reported in the Annual Report on Employee Absence and Substitute Data come from a representative sample of school districts from across the United States. Across all U.S. districts, we estimate the total number of absences requiring a substitute was 17,903,767. At a cost of about $119 per day for a substitute teacher (averaged across the nation), professionally-related absences cost school systems an estimated $2,128,399,786 last year. Because of absences related to professional obligations, students lost about 1,342,782,503 learning days with their assigned teachers in 2016-17 alone.

Elizabeth Combs is Managing Director of the Frontline Research & Learning Institute. She began her career as an elementary school teacher and Director of Administrative and Instructional Technology at Patchogue-Medford School District before moving to Imperial Software Systems, a professional learning services company, where she eventually served as President. She then held positions at My Learning Plan, Inc. as President and Chief Strategy Officer. Her professional affiliations include memberships with Learning Forward and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Ms. Combs holds a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master of Arts in Technology in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and a professional diploma in Education Administration from Hofstra University. She also holds certifications and licenses to serve as a teacher, school administrator and supervisor.