Absent teachers hurt students - and taxpayers | Opinion

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Over the course of a year, the School District of Philadelphia spends more than $59.8 million on teachers who are not working.

A new report on teacher absenteeism in the School District of Philadelphia is enough to make you sick. Every day, more than 500 teachers are marked absent from school.

The cost is staggering. Over the course of a year, the district spends more than $59.8 million on teachers who are not working. That’s right, nearly $60 million for teachers who are absent.

But it doesn’t end there. When a teacher fails to report for work, the district is forced to hire a substitute to cover the class. At one of its last meetings, the School Reform Commission in February approved a contract for substitute teacher services valued at $54.3 million. So, all told, the cost of absentee teachers in Philadelphia district schools is a staggering $114.3 million per year.

These alarming facts, made public in a new report from Excellent Schools PA titled “The High Cost of Teacher Absenteeism in Philadelphia,” underscore the critical need for the district to solve a teacher absentee problem that has reached crisis proportions. In district public schools, teacher absenteeism is nearly 200 percent above the national average.

In the 2015-16 school year (the most recent data available), the district reported a teacher Average Daily Attendance (ADA) rate of 93.9 percent, which means that on any given day, about 6 percent (512) of the district’s teachers are absent. By comparison, the national attendance rate is 2.8 percent.

At $114 million per year, the impact of teacher absenteeism on taxpayers is enormous. But the impact on students is even greater. Teachers are the most influential factor in a student’s academic success. Excellent teachers can change the trajectory of a student’s life in and out of the classroom.

But absent teachers can do serious damage. Pervasive teacher absenteeism creates an unstable and inconsistent learning environment in a school, which has a crushing effect on student achievement. How can a child effectively master a skill when his or her progress is repeatedly interrupted by the absence of a teacher?

Sadly, the correlation between teacher absence and school quality is nowhere more apparent than among Philadelphia’s lowest-performing district schools. In 2015-16, as the report notes, “the 20 SDP schools with the lowest ADA teacher rates also have some of the lowest overall quality scores” on the School Progress Report , the district’s own ranking system of schools.

Of the 20 schools with the highest rates of teacher absenteeism, all but one have SPR scores below 30 (out of a possible 100 points). Fourteen of these same schools have an SPR of 20 or below. For the record, an SPR of 20 or below amounts to a public acknowledgement that the school in question is failing.

In fairness, the district has tried for years to solve the problem of chronic teacher absenteeism through a generous reimbursement program that pays teachers for unused personal and sick leave — at a cost of millions of dollars in accumulated payments for retiring or resigning teachers.

But it hasn’t worked, and the district must develop a more effective solution. One possible option: Incentivize teachers to report for work every day. In Oklahoma, for example, one district implemented a program where teachers who are absent five or fewer days a year can earn a share of the savings generated by hiring fewer substitutes. In Lincoln, Neb., teachers can choose to continue receiving separate sick and personal days, or to take all their days as annual leave. This allowed educators the freedom to use their days as they saw fit. with the idea being if teachers were treated as professionals they would act professionally and not abuse the leave allowances.

That proves a valuable lesson: If educators feel valued and respected by their bosses, they are less likely to take unnecessary time off because they are constantly reminded of the important role they play in the school. Instilling a collaborative working environment in a school, where teamwork is highly prized, can also reduce teacher absenteeism.

Reducing the cost of teacher absenteeism must be a priority for the new school board that takes over in July. Our children are depending on having teachers in the classroom, and so are Philadelphia taxpayers.

Stephen DeMaura is executive director of Excellent Schools PA. This piece originally appeared on the Philadelphia Citizen