Philadelphia’s Teacher Attendance Problem

This is the first policy piece written by Clifford Thomas, PSP’s Policy Manager. You can read more about Cliff here.

The School District of Philadelphia has a teacher attendance problem. NewsWorks recently published a story detailing the contractual interaction between the School District of Philadelphia and Source4Teachers, the NJ firm charged this year with meeting Philadelphia’s substitute teacher needs.

Needless to say, the results to date have been concerning. Substitute fill rates have fallen below previous levels and have yet to rise above 50% across the entire District. This has not only become a source of ongoing criticism for the District, but is also hugely detrimental to the schools that lack adequate coverage for their classrooms and the students that expect, at a minimum, a teacher in the room.

The lack of substitutes is a problem, and Source4Teachers has clearly failed to deliver on its promised fill rates. However, the problem with substitutes is really just a symptom of a much larger, systemic problem: the prevalence of concentrated teacher absenteeism in the District.

Given the critical impact of teachers on student achievement—particularly in schools with scarce resources—there has been scant public discussion of teacher absenteeism in Philadelphia. Fortunately, the District is an active participant in the City of Philadelphia’s Open Data Initiative. Given this data and what NewsWorks published we were able to analyze the following data points:

  1. The total number of absences for each District school in Philadelphia from September 9th, 2015 to February 19th, 2016 from NewsWorks. Using the District’s vacancy list, we were able to estimate and account for absences due to unfilled positions, sabbaticals and long-term illnesses. It is worth noting that this list fluctuates throughout the year, and this data is accurate as of 3/17/16.
  2. The total number of scheduled teacher attendance days between September 9th, 2015 to February 19th, 2016, excluding days off for the papal visit and snow days
  3. The reported number of permanent, full-time teaching staff at each District school in Philadelphia, including Special Education teachers
  4. The salary of each permanent, full-time teacher at each District school, including Special Education teachers

Given this data, a straightforward calculation of the number of teachers at each school and the number of scheduled teacher attendance days gives us the total number of possible instances of teacher attendance. With the NewsWorks-reported absence data, we were able to calculate the attendance and absence rate for each school with data available. Finally, with the salary data for each of the teachers, we were able to calculate the average teacher salary at each school and the salary “lost” due to teacher absences.

Our analysis revealed the following:

  • 118 schools had teacher attendance rates below 95%
  • 17 schools had teacher attendance rates below 90%
  • 4 schools had teacher attendance rates below 85%

Some context is necessary to consider the magnitude of these numbers. A 2014 National Council on Teacher Quality analysis of teacher attendance in the nation’s 40 largest metropolitan areas revealed a 94% average teacher attendance rate. 100 District schools were below that mark through February 19th. The 94% figure for teachers is slightly less than the 97.1% average attendance rate reported for all full-time salaried or hourly workers as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 173 District schools (79% of all schools) had attendance rates lower than this nationwide average.

Here’s some additional perspective. Imagine that every other Tuesday, you didn’t go to work. For the six-month span between September and February, this was the reality for the average teacher at almost 10% of Philadelphia’s public schools. Before focusing our efforts on substitute teacher replacements, why not instead focus on the chronic teacher absenteeism apparent across our school district? After all:

  1. Teachers don’t operate in a vacuum. They are often one member of a grade and/or content area team that depends on everyone fulfilling their responsibilities as an instructional professional.
  2. Chronic teacher absenteeism places an unfair burden on teachers who are forced to cover additional classes, depriving them of much-needed planning and prep time and increasing the size of their classes.
  3. Students are being deprived of consistent instruction from their permanent teacher, with hugely negative effects on their academic success.

More tangibly, there are real financial costs associated with chronic teacher absenteeism. Between September 9th, 2015 and February 19th, 2016 the 123 schools with teacher attendance rates below the 94% national average cost the district nearly $3 million in lost wages, not including the costs of the sporadically provided substitute teachers. Assuming that these rates hold steady through the end of the school year, teacher absenteeism could cost the District over $5.1 million in lost wages.

To be clear, life happens, even for teachers. We get sick, family members get hurt, and pipes freeze and burst. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect all teachers to maintain a 100% attendance rate. That said, I can’t imagine a workplace that would tolerate employees missing 1 out of every 10 days of work, let alone the 1 in 5 in some of Philadelphia’s District schools.

Let’s continue the conversation about Source4Teachers. It hasn’t gone well, and we should demand that fill rates are improved. But let’s first have a more difficult and important conversation, one that ensures that all of our schools’ teachers make it to school at least as often as our children do.

(UPDATE: This piece was edited at 2:49 PM on 3/17/16 to remove long-term teacher vacancies from the absence calculations.)