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New report takes teacher attendance in Maryland, nation

An average of 35 percent of Maryland teachers missed 10 or more days of the 2009-2010 school year, according to a new report released by the Center for American Progress, which found that teacher absentee rates across the country are costing the country billions and having an adverse affect on student achievement.

The report, titled: "Teacher absence as a leading indicator of student achievement," takes a comprehensive look at average absentee rates for each state, which are then ranked based on the percentage of teachers who miss 10 or more days of school.

The report's authors examined data  nearly 57,000 schools based on statistics, and survey results presented by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The agency began including teacher absences in its biennial Civil Rights Data Collection survey in 2009. 

When the office began collecting the data, Reagan Miller, who authored the report as former associate director of CAP's research arm, said the federal government jump-started a debate on the issue.

“Even though the measure is kind of a blunt one, that means we can understand more about what’s going on in a broader sense than we’ve ever been able to before," Miller said in an interview. “There’s great variability, and that range does have to do with policy choices at the state level.”

Maryland ranked in the middle of the pack, 29th of the 50 states examined--and it's average 35 percent of teachers who missed two weeks or more of school mirrored the national average.

The state with the lowest average of teacher absences was Utah where 21 percent of teachers missed 10 days or more, and Rhode Island tallied the highest average 50 percent. A Rhode Island media outlet conducted its own investigation into teacher absence, producing an interactive map documenting the chronic absences of its teachers.

The report also looks at absentee rates in charters versus traditional schools (average absentee rates are significantly lower--by roughly 16 percentage points-- in charters), by demographic (schools with predominantly African-American populations were higher), and by schools' grade levels (rates were highest among middle school teachers).

What drives teacher absences, Miller said, would have to be studied on-the-ground in individual states and districts--which he encourages education officials to do.

"With these and other findings, this report seeks to draw attention to the too long-neglected subject of teacher absence," Miller concluded in his report. "The costs of teacher absence, both in financial and academic terms, can no longer be borne in silence. The abundance of variation in teacher absence behavior, both between districts and within, means that there is room in many districts and individual schools for teachers to have adequate access to paid leave while being absent less frequently.

In his report, Miller also issues a series of recommendations that would help remedy the absences such as revisiting state statues on leave provisions, "right-sizing" leave privileges and pushing more incentives for teachers to take less time off.

So far, the only district who has publicized its teacher attendance as an issue is Baltimore City. Last year, the school district released data on teacher absences for the 2010-2011 school year.

The city school system has among the most liberal leave policies for educators.  Per their union contract, teachers have one personal day per years; teachers in their first two years have 10 sick days, and those with three or more can take up to 20. The unions 12-month-employees (teachers are usually 10-month) have 18 sick-days, and 24 vacation-days a year.

The school system also pays out unused sick-leave pay, with the maximum being 72 days for members of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Of the 878 teachers who missed more than 11 days in the 2010-2011 school year, only 202 were on approved leave of absence, leaving 676 who should have been documented using the employee attendance policy.

According to the data, the majority of the city's teachers--about 1,940--only used between two and five sick-leave days; 1,197 used between six and 10; 283 used between 21 and 60 days; and 31 used more than 60.

That year, 10 teachers were also dismissed that year for chronic absences.

The district also paid about $5.2 million for substitutes that year.

The system attempted to crack down on teacher truancy last school year, officials acknowledged, and principals communicated that teachers could be penalized for too much time off in their year-end evaluations. Union officials, however, encouraged teachers to take the time they're entitled to.

“I’m happy that people are asking questions, and revisiting policies and management," Miller said of Baltimore's dialogue on the issue.

"It seems possible that the amount of resources that are devoted to teacher absence—unpaid leave, substitutes, and the cost of student achievement could be re-balanced a bit, and you can get a win for the students, with teachers still having completely adequate access top paid  leave. I don’t know why people wouldn’t be interested in striking a balance.”

And in urban districts like Baltimore, continuing that dialogue could bring another element to its reforms.

“Absence indicators might be a barometer for school culture," Miller added. "And when we’re worried about turning around low-performing schools, bringing in other measures besides student achievement might be an easy thing to do and can help us understand things we couldn’t before."

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