Apr 19, 2011

Teacher Absences And Their Effect On Kids

Raegen T. Miller is the Associate Director for Education Research at American Progress. His work focuses on strategic management of human capital in education. He has published articles in peer-reviewed research journals shedding light on the productivity costs of teacher absences. He holds a doctorate in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Raegen’s work in education policy is grounded in many years of practice and service. He taught mathematics in the United States and abroad, in traditional public schools and in charter schools, and in urban and suburban settings. Raegen completed his teacher training at Stanford University, and he holds an M.S. in mathematics from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He was a trustee of Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Somerville, Massachusetts, and he served as president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, California.
Dunkin' Donuts ran a television ad a few years ago that captured the conventional wisdom about what happens in a classroom when the teacher is absent. The ad shows a gangly young man standing in the front of the classroom. He announces that he's the substitute teacher for the day, whereupon a hail of paper-wads flies his way. Many people find it hard not to laugh at the ad, as intended. But the subject of teacher absence is a serious matter in terms of basic safety, financial cost, learning loss, and equity.
As the ad suggests, safety is a big concern, and not just the safety of substitute teachers. The absence of the regular teacher may create opportunities for bullying and horseplay that have no place in a safe classroom. Parents, even ones who would laugh at the ad, are quick to name their concerns about children's safety during teacher absences.
The financial costs of teacher absence are not trivial. Public school teachers in the United States are absent between nine and 10 days per year, on average. This means that 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. Stipends for substitute teachers and associated administrative costs amount to $4 billion annually. But the chaotic classroom in the Dunkin' ad also suggests costs to student learning.
Researchers have recently documented that students' academic achievement suffers because of their regular teachers' absences. This is no great surprise if instruction essentially stops during absences. Some substitute teachers, no doubt, are extraordinarily talented, but they tend to lack the qualifications and training of regular teachers. While all regular teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree, a high school diploma suffices for substitute teaching in many states. The most compelling research to date suggests that the daily learning loss caused by a teacher absence is equivalent to that suffered when replacing a teacher of average quality with a teacher drawn from the bottom tenth or fifth of the talent pool. This sounds like a big deal, and it's only compounded by equity concerns.
Students in schools serving predominantly low-income families and students of color experience teacher absence at higher rates than students in more affluent, whiter communities. Thus, part of the achievement gap stems from a teacher attendance gap.
Dunkin' Donuts and its ad firm were not thinking deeply about the challenges posed by teacher absences, some of which are unavoidable. Policymakers ought to think about these challenges.
  • Federal policymakers should amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require school-level information about teacher absences on school report cards.
  • State policymakers should re-examine and justify statutes governing teachers' paid leave privileges. Ohio law, for example, requires districts to furnish teachers with 15 sick-days and 3 personal-days annually. Eighteen days is a tenth of the school year.
  • Local policymakers should encourage experimentation with and evaluation of incentive policies designed to reduce levels of teacher absence. Many examples of such policies exist, and teachers do respond to them. Aldine Independent School District in Texas, for instance, offers tax-sheltered bonus payments for teachers with exceptionally few absences, and North Carolina requires teachers to pay a co-payment for each absence above a certain threshold level.

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