Teacher Absenteeism Means Academic Inconsistency

While looking at Civil Rights data for my previous post, I noticed that they included a category labeled “% FTE of Teachers Absent > 10 days of the School Year”. I then started looking at some of the numbers. To ensure that I was seeing what I thought I was seeing, I went to their data definition sheet (located at the bottom of the data sheet for Woonsocket, for example) to verify what a couple key terms meant:
* FTE (Full-time equivalent) – a measure of staffing that factors in the proportion of time a staff person serves (at the particular location). A staff person who is at a location for the entire day is 1 FTE at that location; a staff person who is at a location for a half day is 0.5 FTE at that location.
* Absent (for teachers) – A teacher is absent if he or she is not in attendance on a day in the regular school year when the teacher would otherwise be expected to be teaching students in an assigned class. This includes both days taken for sick leave and days taken for personal leave. Personal leave includes voluntary absences for reasons other than sick leave. Do not include administratively approved leave for professional development, field trips or other off-campus activities with students.
I then compiled the available data into the below chart (data isn’t available for all of the school districts in Rhode Island. If your school isn’t listed, there was no data).

District % FTE of Teachers Absent > 10 days of the School Year
Bristol/Warren 77.9%
Woonsocket 72.2%
Cranston 71.2%
Barrington 67.5%
Middletown 65.7%
Central Falls 64.9%
West Warwick 57.8%
Providence 56.9%
South Kingstown 56.4%
Pawtucket 50.7%
Westerly 50.0%
East Providence 49.0%
Johnston 43.1%
North Providence 41.5%
Chariho 37.0%
Warwick 36.8%
North Smithfield 31.2%
Lincoln 26.2%
Cumberland 24.0%
Narragansett 22.0%
North Kingstown 19.3%
Coventry 5.0%
Tiverton 3.9%

*SOURCE: U.S. Office of Civil Rights Data Collection
Again, because these numbers are so high, I thought that perhaps I missed something. My first thought was that they may have included maternity leave in the absentee rate. I’m still not sure about that. Another thought I had is that they simply pooled all possible FTE days and divided by all of the days absent, which would allow a few people taking many sick days to affect the entire pool. I think this may account for a portion of the high numbers. I don’t believe RI teachers pay into Rhode Island’s TDI system, so they pool their sick days so that members with prolonged illnesses can take time off without missing pay. (If there is any other factor I’m missing, feel free to correct me, please).
Nonetheless, taking the above into account and given the definitions listed, it appears as if we have a problem with teacher absenteeism in the majority of Rhode Island school districts. Even if the “it’s a problem” line is (albeit) arbitrarily set at 10%–and 10% is still pretty generous, particularly when most people in the private sector don’t get more than 5 sick days a year, much less summers and school vacations–there are at least twenty-one school districts in Rhode Island that have teacher absentee rates of around 20% or more. That isn’t good.
Regardless, even if I think its one of those root cause problems that has led to places like, say, Woonsocket, ending up in their current dire straits, the apparent lack of professionalism isn’t even my primary concern. Instead, I’m more concerned with how such inconsistency in the classroom affects students. We are told that, whether or not it’s the ideal, school is the one place where kids can go for structure and consistency. Instead, too many Rhode Island students are faced with a revolving door of substitute teachers who have little or no stake in their educational growth. So much for consistency.

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9 years ago

Absenteeism is often ranked as the number one problem with employees in the private sector. The difference is that many of them are fired as a result.

9 years ago

I’ll bet that unrelated to work activity such as constant social media contact, texting, sports betting and sports related activity via internet (college hoops in March for example) chews up a huge amount of time at work. And yes even posting almost pathologically to political blogs all over the place must account for lost time for some employers.
Right, dude?

9 years ago

Sick days are seen as a benefit. Most places allow them to be carried over for many years and paid out as a lump sum at retirement. Many contracts limit the number of carry-over years, so this leads some to take the days off so they won’t lose the benefit. My high school son has substitutes many times and I always ask what they did in class. Not much. It’s a wasted class.
Barrington has a high percentage, so you can’t point to this issue as some critical factor of education. Our high school has one of the lowest numbers, but it’s a big problem. The incentive is wrong and it hurts the students. That’s enough.

9 years ago

Phil – At some point your off-topic, ad hominem comments cross the line into threadjacking and trolling. My opinion is that they did some time ago, although the moderators will have to decide for themselves.
As I have already explained to you, as a salaried and closely supervised employee, I don’t owe you any explanations about when I am working, when I am not working, when I take breaks, when I am on lunch, when I take the day off, when I am travelling, when I am waiting for meetings, etc. My performance evaluations speak for themselves (all “exceeds” this year). You can see that my two posts in this thread and earlier post this morning are not within the normal 9-5 working time range, so that’s for starters.
If full employment disclosure is so important to you, we can start with why you exclusively focus on topics related to teachers and teachers unions. Of course, all of us already know the answer to that question.

9 years ago

Effective use of job time is a separate issue. Many salaried jobs require much more than 40 hours per week. Woe (and a pink slip) to those who think they can get away with fooling around instead of working.
For most regular jobs, when you are out sick, no substitute is doing your job. In fact, companies are reducing their skills overlap to a minimum so that nobody else can do your job. They wouldn’t have the time, even if they could. This is also true for vacations. In the last 10 years, companies have expected more from fewer people. Some have to get approval to take off two vacation weeks in a row. For many companies, there is a limit to how many vacation days (not sick days) that can be carried over each year. A Dilbert cartoon once had Alice in the position of deciding whether to take her vacation days or to not meet her quarterly goals. This happens. Many avoid taking sick days and even vacation days because of the work load. Teachers are dreaming if they think there is a wonderful job world out there, even for high tech jobs. The market is causing a job expectation correction that is apparently not penetrating the teaching market.

Max D
Max D
9 years ago

Pretty good analysis Steve. At my last place of employment, you could see the difference between those that were entirely responsible for their own work and those whose job function could be covered be someone else. Those that had the most responsibility had to be on their death bed to call in sick while the other group toyed with the system taking long weekends and some actually establishing a pattern of calling out.

9 years ago

First, I suspect schools have a higher probability of sickness given the environment – close contact on a routine basis in often suspect buildings with a highly variable population in terms of hygiene and outside exposure.
Having said that, it seems we have a failure of imagination in terms of incentives. For the most part, my understanding is school personnel get to use a few days without having to show cause and can also save and “cash out” accumulated days.
I would think the district should establish a reasonable benchmark based on a 180-185 day working year, determine what the direct cost in their budget process (substitute pay seems the greatest), and then establish a system that rewards both the group and individuals for coming in under that benchmark.
For example, if 10% is the mark, then teachers get 18-20 days of sick leave. If the district as a whole is under 10%, take some proportion of the savings and put it into a pool. Give some to the teachers based on their own behavior (although I would start at say under 9 days so you don’t have teachers coming in when actually sick) and also give each school a portion to use as the teachers want (within any legal restrictions).

9 years ago

I’ve noticed that there are some employees at my Agency who regularly take a sick day every two or three weeks, and always on a Monday or Friday. They are invariably the mediocre-performance employees who have effectively maxed out at GS-13, collect their $115k salaries and benefits, and beyond that simply don’t care anymore. Thanks to the union contract, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it.
But an even bigger scourge that has cropped up recently is “legal absenteeism,” a.k.a. telework. In theory, telework makes a lot of sense – save on travel time and costs, save on building costs, etc. In practice, it has been a disaster for productivity and workplace culture. Under new Federal directives, employees can now take 2 days of telework every week, which means if you need to speak with someone or get something reviewed in a hurry, there is a 40% chance they won’t be there and you’ll have to go on a long game of phone or e-mail tag, to which they usually don’t respond well for having been “bothered” at home. Even directors, HR personnel, and administrative assistants are now allowed to telework, which makes no sense at all. Everyone knows that nothing or next to nothing gets done during this time at home, but again, nothing can be done about it. I just refuse to participate and try to set a good example – 0 sick days and 0 telework days this year. Same as last year. Same as next year will be.
My lunch break, Phil. Hope that’s okay with you.

9 years ago

This is a thought provoking post,to say the least. Thinking back to my own parochial school elementary days,I can only remember having a substitute on perhaps three occasions.
The part that troubles me about this most though,is the statement that ” We are told that,whether or not it’s the ideal,school is the one place where kids can go for structure and consistency.”
My first thought upon reading that was, oh really? I thought the family was the one place children can depend on for structure and consistency. So the schools now are above the parents in the children’s lives apparently.
You are also saying that “We are told that…” at the beginning of that statement,well,let us in on who is telling us that. I’d like to know.
It seems like you are trying to turn back the lefty rhetoric on themselves,but sorry,I think you are using a premise that falls right into putting government schools above parents in importance to children.
Very nice article with good information I think.

9 years ago

It is interesting to see that the Coventry rate is significantly lower than all of the other communities listed. It is my understanding that there are multiple incentives for not being absent there – pay for unused sick time at retirement and a pool of money to share if the overall absentee rate is low in a year…
I have friends who teach who have said that their inability to leave their classroom for hours (to use restroom, etc.) over the course of the day sometimes influences their decision to call in sick.

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