The significance of teacher absenteeism, many researchers have shown, has to do with its damage to student learning and achievement.

Three studies cited by a 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, for example, found that “instructional intensity may be radically reduced when a regularly assigned teacher is absent,” and the “low skill levels of substitute teachers” reduce “instructional focus.” 

[Index to Parts 1-4]

 Two additional studies cited by the NBER paper found that teacher absences create “discontinuities of instruction,” as well as “the disruption of the regular routines and procedures of the classroom.”

The paper continued:

Students may have difficulty forming meaningful relationships with multiple, mobile substitutes, and even if substitutes deliver brilliant isolated lessons, they may not be able to implement a regular teacher’s long-term instructional strategies. Furthermore, substitutes’ lack of detailed knowledge of students’ skill levels makes it difficult for them to provide differentiated instruction that addresses the needs of individual students.

To a certain extent, of course, some teacher absences are unavoidable. Life happens — the flu strikes, family emergencies arise — and work gets interrupted.

Moreover, the challenges that teachers face, especially in high-poverty schools and those with many at-risk children, are immense, and wearing.

However, over-the-top absenteeism rates, such as those of the Clark County School District, suggest that something else — and important —is operating behind the scenes.

One major factor that the Fordham study documents is the role of generous collective bargaining agreements in the “extent of and tolerance for teacher absenteeism in traditional public schools.”

And, sure enough, Nevada teacher-union CBAs allow paid sick-leave for up to 15 days per school year — at the top end of the norm around America. On the other hand, Silver State charter-school teachers are not unionized, and their chronic-absenteeism number — 9 percent — is much lower.

This correlation of unions with higher absenteeism, however, may not be “the” explanation for it. Rather, it may well be that even the presence of the unions themselves reflects a deeper, systemic problem within American public schools.

Representatives of the National Center for Teaching Quality have more than once intimated that school culture is critical and needs to be understood much more clearly.

Consider comments by Nithya Joseph, NCTQ director for state and district policy.

The organization, following the U.S. Dept. of Education’s release of 2013 data, had analyzed 40 of America’s largest school districts, examining “differences between districts with rewards for perfect attendance, strict reporting, and other punitive measures intended to discourage taking time off, and other common initiatives,” reported EdWeek.

However, no clear answer seemed to present itself, said Ms. Joseph.

“We just didn’t find any correlation between those policies and teacher absences,” she said. “We couldn’t find a concrete reason why. It sounded like it was more something related to school culture; it was anecdotal, but pretty consistent in the people we talked to.” (Emphasis added.)

Interestingly, Joseph’s conclusion also agrees with insights emerging from the first comprehensive academic inquiry into teacher-absence rates across different school types. Conducted by Albert Cheng at the University of Arkansas, its results were published in 2013.

“Although this study is descriptive, not causal,” observed Cheng, “the results are consistent with the theory that organizational-level factors such as cultural salience — the extent to which members of a school community agree with and are influenced by the norms and values espoused by the collective school community — are important determinants of individual-level teacher absenteeism.”

Indeed, educational researchers have long recognized that schools have distinct organizational cultures, one facet of which they’ve termed absence culture — defined within a 1982 article in the journal Research in Organizational Behavior as “the set of shared understandings about absence legitimacy.”

Because schools vary by cultural salience — that is, the degree to which the educational goals and values officially proclaimed by the schools are, in fact, genuinely supported by teachers, principals and staff — high levels of teacher absenteeism also signal reduced levels, within such schools, of genuine commitment to the values and goals publicly proclaimed by those schools.

Student achievement, of course, is foremost among such professed goals.

More simply, CCSD’s exceptionally high level of teacher absenteeism indicates widespread teacher demoralization and disengagement within the district.

Link to Part 3: Generally, private-school teachers have higher morale, receive more support from principals and respect as professionals.