In addition to standard school vacations, most districts provide teachers between 10 and 15 sick days per academic year. Districts also designate a number of days that may be used for personal reasons other than illness. Many districts have policies that allow teachers to accumulate unused leave days from year to year. In some cases, teachers may exchange some or all of the unused days for pay at the end of each school year or at retirement.
The most common types of additional paid leave days include professional development, bereavement, jury duty, military service, and work-related legal proceedings or injuries. Adoption, childbirth, paternity, and child-rearing leaves are usually unpaid, a time when teachers rely on accumulated leave days for pay.
The Teacher Contract Database includes information on the amount of leave teachers receive, how much leave can be accumulated, and various attendance incentives districts provide such as paying teachers for unused leave. For a more in depth look at teacher leave policies and attendance rates, read NCTQ’s 2014 report Roll Call: The importance of teacher attendance.
What the research shows
Frequent teacher absences negatively impact student performance. Research shows that every 10 teacher absences lowers students’ mathematics achievement by 1.7 to 3.3 percent of a standard deviation, which is roughly equivalent to the difference in mathematics achievement seen between students of teachers with one to two years of experience and those with three to five years of experience (Clotfelter, et al., 2009; Miller et al., 2008; Miller, 2008). These effects are especially pronounced for elementary school students (Clotfelter, 2009). Persistent absenteeism also earns teachers lower principal evaluation ratings (Jacob & Walsh, 2011).
Furthermore, teacher absence is a financial and administrative burden for districts. By one estimate, districts spend approximately $4 billion annually to find and hire substitute teachers (Miller, 2012). On average, teacher absences directly imposed financial costs on districts of $1800 per teacher per year (Ost, 2015). Districts are constantly struggling to balance the educational, financial, and administrative costs of teacher absence against the extent to which generous leave policies attract teaching candidates (Clotfelter, 2009).
Nationally, 5.3 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, and 36 percent of teachers were absent upward of 10 days during the 2009-10 school year (Miller, 2012). NCTQ’s report found similar trends in the 2012-13 school year: 16 percent of all teachers were absent 18 or more days, accounting for almost one third of all absences.
Teachers’ absence patterns often reflect those of their colleagues, creating a culture of acceptable rates of absenteeism within each school. One study found that when teachers transfer to a new school, they gravitate to the average absence rate in their new placement, regardless of it being higher or lower than their own attendance rate at their previous school. Furthermore, this same study found that elementary teachers are less likely to take leave when they have less experience, teach bigger classes, or are teaching a new grade level for the first time (Ost, 2015).
School demographics may also play a role in teacher attendance. Some studies find that schools serving predominantly low-income students and students of color experience disproportionately higher rates of teacher absenteeism, negatively impacting those students who already face significant hurdles to achievement. A school in the 90th percentile for its proportion of African American students has a teacher absence rate 3.5 percent higher than a school at the 10th percentile (Miller, 2012). However, it is worth noting that NCTQ’s report did not find a relationship between teacher attendance and their student poverty levels.
Limited research has been done to explore the impacts of implementing new leave policies on teacher absenteeism, but some studies demonstrate that teachers improve their attendance when compelled through external pressure. During the era of No Child Left Behind, high-stakes accountability policies decreased annual teacher absence by 10 percent when schools, especially Title-1 schools, were threatened with sanctions for failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (Gershenson, 2016).
Bradley, S., Green, C., & Leeves, G. (2007). Worker absence and shirking: Evidence from matched teacher-school data.
Clotfelter, C. T., Ladd, H. F., & Vigdor, J. L. (2009). Are Teacher Absences Worth Worrying about in the U.S.? National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.
Gershenson, S. (2016). Performance Standards and Employee Effort: Evidence From Teacher Absences. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,35(3), 615-638. doi:10.1002/pam.21910
Jacob, B.A., & Walsh, E. (2011). What’s in a rating? Economics of Education Review, 30, 434-448.
Miller, R. (2012). Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement. Center for American Progress.
Miller, Raegan. "Tales of teacher absence: New research yields patterns that speak to policy makers." Center for American Progress (2008).
Miller, R. T., Murnane, R. J., & Williett, J. B. (2008). Do Teacher Absences Impact Student Achievement? Longitudinal Evidence from One Urban School District. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis,30(2), 181-200. doi:10.3386/w13356
Ost, B., & Schiman, J. C. (2017). Workload and teacher absence. Economics of Education Review,57, 20-30.