New study: Cleveland and Columbus teacher absences top most urban areas

Josh Vaughan Jun 04, 2014

If 80 percent of success is showing up, public school teachers in Cleveland and Columbus are not making the grade. Embedded in a report released by the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is a startling statistic: Cleveland and Columbus have two of the highest average number of teacher absences in the nation.

With an average of 15.6 missed days a year, teachers in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District more than doubled the average of 6.1 days found in Indianapolis. The Columbus City School District did not fare much better, with an average of 14.8 days per year. There was a total average of 11 days missed among the districts supplying information for the report, 40 of the 50 largest districts in the nation.

To put these numbers in perspective, the absence rate for all full time wage and salary workers is 2.9 percent. Furthermore, an Ohio student can be classified as a chronic truant after missing 15 school days. A classification of chronic truancy can result in a suspended driver’s license for the student and a criminal charge for his or her parent or guardian.

The high average number of teacher absences underscores problems Cleveland and Columbus have with “chronically absent” teachers. A “chronically absent” teacher is defined by the report as a teacher with 18 or more absences. Six districts studied by the report had a “chronically absent” teacher rate of 25 percent of more. In Cleveland and Columbus, the second and third worst districts on this metric, 33.81 percent and 32.03 percent of teachers, respectively, missed 18 or more days of school. Only Buffalo, New York, at a whopping 36.82 percent, performed worse. By contrast, Cincinnati’s “chronically absent” rate was only 14.12 percent, less than half of its Ohio peers.

High rates of absence can affect both student achievement and school funds. As the report observes, “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.”

Furthermore, “The 40 districts included in this analysis spent approximately $424 million combined on substitutes in 2012-2013, not factoring in the time and resources spent recruiting, training, and securing substitutes.”

These findings are consistent with an earlier report issued by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which estimated the cost of teacher absence to be “a minimum of $4 billion annually.” The Center for American Progress report also found this issue to be much more prevalent in public schools, where teachers were absent “more than 10 times per year at a rate more than 15 percent higher than in charter schools.”

The NCTQ report is careful not to draw overly broad conclusions, but two findings should trouble defenders of the public education status quo in Ohio. First, the rate of poverty did not have a statistically significant effect on teacher absence. Second, the current district incentive programs to ensure teacher attendance do not appear to be particularly effective and need to be re-examined.

There is no reason to attack the public school teachers in Cleveland and Columbus for their excessive absenteeism, but there is reason to raise fundamental questions about how public education is viewed in Ohio. The endless demands for taxpayer dollars for school funding are often presented as vital investments in the future of the state. In fact, over the past two years, both Cleveland and Columbus have asked voters to add even more money to already high-spending districts through the approval of gargantuan property tax levies. Taxpayers must ask whether their investment will be used appropriately and wisely. Will the additional funds help to achieve the desired results? Or is there a deeper more systemic problem that requires reform? Is it time to evaluate whether Cleveland and Columbus teachers can actually succeed in educating the cities’ children without showing up.