How Many Teachers Aren’t Showing Up?

Printed from:


When it comes to absenteeism in public schools, it’s not just students who aren’t showing up. Sometimes it’s their teachers too.

Actually, it’s the teachers a lot of the time. On average, about a fifth of teachers in the Boston area miss more than 10 days of the school year.

New Boston Post culled through federal records for 30 school districts roughly within Route 128 for the 2013-2014 school year, the most recent available. Topping the list was Lynn, where 450 out of nearly 1,000 teachers were absent for the equivalent of two school weeks, a rate of 45 percent. Saugus was second, at 36.6 percent. Peabody was third at 32.5 percent.

Of the three, Peabody has consistently had the highest rate of absenteeism for more than 10 days. For the 2009 to 2010 school year, it was 32.3 percent, nearly level where it is now. It actually spiked at 47.7 percent for the 2011-2012 year before easing back down. (The federal data is provided for alternating years.)

The other two districts, Lynn and Saugus, followed a different pattern. They hit their peaks in the 2009-2010 school year, both in the 40 percent range. Then, their absentee rates plummeted in the next survey year before climbing back up to their present levels.

Boston-area schools appear to be within the national norm, however. For the 2012-2013 school year, the typical public school teacher was out 11 days out of an average 186-day school year. An estimated 16 percent of teachers were chronically absent, defined as 10 percent of the year, according to a 2014 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. (The NCTQ collected its own data for the report and does not appear to have released an updated version.)

Teacher absenteeism has a detrimental effect on their students, experts say.

“As common sense suggests, teacher attendance is directly related to student outcomes:  the more teachers are absent, the more their students’ achievement suffers. When teachers are absent 10 days, the decrease in student achievement is equivalent to the difference between having a brand-new teacher and one with two or three years more experience,” the National Council on Teacher Quality stated in its report.

The report also revealed that there is a “disproportionately high rate of teacher absenteeism in schools serving low income and minority students.”

In the Boston area at least, the pattern is less clear. True, Lynn has a student poverty rate of 51.7 percent, but Saugus and Peabody are nowhere near that range. The school district with the highest student poverty rate, 55.1 percent, is Chelsea, where 22 percent of teachers are away for more than 10 days — within the average for the area.

(Student poverty — the official terminology is “economically disadvantaged” — is a metric tabulated by the Massachusetts Department of Education. Participation in free or reduced lunch programs is a traditional proxy for student poverty.  The new method aims to be more inclusive by looking at students who are on food stamps, welfare, or the state Medicaid plan, or who are in foster care, according to the department’s official definition.) 

*Due to a data error figures from 2011-2012 were used. SOURCE: Absentee data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights; student test data from the Massachusetts Department of Education. NOTE: Figures offer merely a snapshot of a given year and may vary significantly from year to year.

Teacher contracts grant educators ample latitude for excused absences. In Boston, the contract permits teachers to take up to 15 sick days and four personal days, according to information provided by local officials. Were teachers to max out on sick and personal days, they would be out for about 10 percent of the school year — the threshold for being chronically absent. And that doesn’t take into account maternity leave and other kinds of absences.

Boston, which is the largest of the districts surveyed, had a higher-than-average rate of teacher absences. An estimated 26 percent were out for more than 10 days, according to federal records. (The average among the 30 districts surveyed in eastern Massachusetts was 20 percent.)

In a statement, the district identified several legitimate circumstances teachers may have to take an absence. It also said it has taken steps to ensure there is no abuse of the system.

“The Boston Public Schools values the important role that a consistent learning environment has on student learning. That is why we make it a top priority to have an effective, full-time teacher in the classroom every day. We also know that there are legitimate and necessary reasons for why a teacher, on occasion, might need to be out of a classroom. These include professional development days to sharpen their skills or leaves of absence to recover from an illness or care for a newborn child,” the district said in a statement.

“Over the past several years, BPS has developed a more rigorous process of reviewing leaves of absence to better identify and rectify any potential misuses,” the district added.

The head of the local teachers union insisted teachers are not taking advantage of the system. “We have absolutely nothing to hide,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

New Boston Post requested comment from the superintendents for the top three districts in teacher absenteeism, Lynn Saugus, and Peabody. They did not respond.