Public school teachers in the United States are absent between nine and 10 days per year, on average. In other words, between kindergarten and 12th grade, a typical student is taught by someone other than the regularly assigned teacher for the equivalent of two-thirds of a school year. Students experience teacher absence in bursts of time, ranging from a few hours to a few months, and this fractured exposure may help deflect policymakers’ attention. Yet there are three good reasons to revisit policies around teacher absence:
- Teacher absence is expensive. With 5.3 percent of teachers absent on a given day, stipends for substitute teachers and associated administrative costs amount to $4 billion, annually.
- Teacher absence negatively affects student achievement. Researchers have found that every 10 absences lowers mathematics achievement by the same amount as having a teacher with one year to two years of experience instead of a teacher with three years to five years of experience.
- Teacher absence disproportionately affects low-income students. Students in schools serving predominantly low-income families experience teacher absence at higher rates than students in more affluent communities. Part of the achievement gap is thus due to a teacher attendance gap.
This report provides new analyses of data from an anonymous, large, urban school district in the northern United States. The data include dates and “excuse” codes for 130,747 absences taken by 5,189 teachers in 106 schools over four years. Patterns teased from the data put the spotlight on discretionary absences—those due to personal days or short-term illnesses. Discretionary absences comprise 56 percent of all absences and tend to occur on days adjacent to non-instructional days, such as weekends. This suggests that teachers have room to respond to incentives that discourage avoidable absences and encourage excellent attendance.