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New study: Charter school teachers less likely to call in sick than peers in regular schools

A new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looks at the number of teachers who miss 11 or more days of work a year and compares the absentee rates in charter schools and regular public schools. The study finds teachers in charters are less likely to miss school.

On average, U.S. teachers miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave; the average American worker takes about three-and-a-half sick days a year. But Fordham classified more than a quarter of teachers as "chronically absent," meaning they miss more than 10 days. The study found variances in absentee rates across states and districts and between charter schools and district ones.

A self-described conservative group, Fordham is a major supporter of charter schools and sponsors charters in Ohio.

Study author David Griffith says there's a cultural component to which teachers are absent, writing in the report, "Many charter schools are founded on the premise that 'no excuses' will be tolerated from either students or teachers. And in keeping with that ideal, this study shows that chronic absenteeism is almost nonexistent at some of the nation’s leading charter networks."

Among his findings:

•Teachers in traditional public schools are three times as likely as teachers in charter schools to be chronically absent: 28.3 percent vs. 10.3 percent.

•In the 10 largest districts, teachers in traditional public schools are four times as likely to be chronically absent.

•Gaps are largest in the states where districts are required to bargain collectively, but charters are not required to do so. (Only about one in 10 charter schools has a teacher's union. )

In Georgia, the gap between teacher absences in charter and traditional schools is not as wide. Regular public school teachers are about 1.5 times more likely than charter school teachers to be chronically absent: 27.8 percent versus 20.8 percent. (Georgia does not have collective bargaining.)

The study doesn't definitively link unions and collective bargaining with higher absenteeism, saying, "Suffice it to say that, although there is no clear relationship between collective bargaining laws and teacher chronic absenteeism in district schools, the gap between charter and district teachers is smallest in states where collective bargaining is illegal (such as Georgia and Texas), and in states where charters are legally bound to district contracts (such as Alaska)."

Writing today in Fordham's Flypaper blog about his study, Griffith says:

Specifically, a 10-day increase in teacher absenteeism is associated with the loss of about six to 10 days of learning in English language arts and about 15 to 25 days of learning in math. In other words, kids learn almost nothing—and possibly less than nothing—when their teacher of record isn’t there.

There are roughly 100,000 public schools in the United States, with over 3 million public school teachers and at least 50 million students. So every year, at least 800,000 teachers in the U.S. are chronically absent, meaning they miss about 9 million days of school between them, resulting in roughly 1 billion instances in which a kid comes to class to find that his or her time is, more often than not, being wasted (or if you prefer, about a billion hours of wasted class time, since students in the early grades don’t have “periods”).

Here are Griffith's recommendations:

  1. Don’t force charter schools to abide by district collective bargaining agreements.
  2. Reduce the number of paid sick and/or personal days teachers are guaranteed. Data from the National Council on Teacher Quality show that the average CBA entitles teachers to nearly 13 days of paid sick and/or personal leave per 180-day school year (or the equivalent of 16 days over the typical professional’s 225-day work year). Moreover, there is a clear link between the amount of paid leave teachers get and their odds of being chronically absent. So if we want to reduce those odds, we need to give teachers less paid leave.
  3. Give teachers maternity leave and disability insurance instead of letting them “carry over” their unused sick days from one year to the next.
  4. Hire a sub. Amazingly, research suggests that less than half of short-term absences are covered by a substitute, even when administrators are notified of the absence well in advance.
  5. Include teacher chronic absenteeism as a non-academic indicator of school quality.

I've been reading reactions to the study, most of which point out teachers are being labeled "chronically absent" for using the time off they are entitled to under their employment contracts. Critics also contend that low-income parents who cannot afford to miss work are more prone to send their children to school sick, so teachers are more apt to catch pink eye or the flu.

I thought this comment from Education Week was worth sharing:

There's no mention in this article of turnover rates between regular public and charter schools. The "churn" at charters is a feature, not a bug, right? Young, underpaid, inexperienced teachers at charters get burned out and leave. Teachers with contracts take "mental health" days, and they take days off to grade, to take their kids to college, to prepare for weddings or funerals, to sit with dying parents, etc. Public school teachers are "lifers," in for the long haul, and all that a life fully led brings with it. Many charters demand their "at will" teachers not only show up every day, putting in 8+ hours at school, but that they also make themselves available to students and parents by phone after hours. There are good reasons for charter burn-out just as there are good reasons for unions and contracts, which are meant to define reasonable expectations for a lifetime of work.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.