One of the greatest influences on students’ performance is their classroom teacher.
But even the best educators are only effective when they show up, and school officials in Buffalo are raising concerns about high rates of absenteeism among teachers.
The long-simmering issue came to the forefront during recent negotiations for a new contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, when district leaders noted that one in four teachers missed 15 or more days during the 2015-2016 school year. About half missed between five and 15 days.
"I always try to break things down when I'm looking at a district, and when I looked at Buffalo I was concerned about the chronic absences," said Superintendent Kriner Cash. "Buffalo has some very good teachers and a lot of those were coming on a regular basis, irregardless of the contract. The issue for me isn't all the teachers, but I am concerned about the chronic absences."
The district’s data mirror several national studies that suggest Buffalo’s teacher absentee problem is one of the worst in the country, with one report ranking the district first for chronic teacher absences. The National Council on Teacher Quality reports that during the 2012-2013 school year, 37 percent of Buffalo teachers missed 18 or more days, compared to 16 percent nationally.
To be sure, teachers are not necessarily taking more days off than they are allowed in their contract, which grants them 12 sick and five personal days in addition to time off for holidays and summer recess. Some teachers are also called out of class to attend training sessions or meetings.
Philip Rumore, Buffalo Teachers Federation president, notes that teachers are often exposed to germs when students come to school sick. And they have the same personal obligations, health issues and family emergencies requiring time off as those in other professions.
“There are a whole lot of reasons teachers take off,” Rumore said, without explaining why these factors weigh more heavily in Buffalo than in other districts. “If you’re in a school building, there’s usually at least one kid who is sick. What, they want a teacher to come to school sick and get the whole class sick?”
Rumore added that there are safeguards in the contract to prevent teachers from taking days off unnecessarily. For example, they can’t take days off immediately before or after holidays. And if principals suspect someone is taking time off unnecessarily, they can request a doctor’s note.
Still, the issue is of enough concern that district leaders wanted to both scale back the number of days off allowed in the contract and give bonuses to teachers to show up more often. Both ideas were rejected by the BTF, but Cash and some members of the School Board have made tackling the issue a priority moving forward.
"At the end of the day, I want the children to get as many hours in front of a qualified teacher as they can get," said School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, who has pressed the issue. "My concern is that there are times the children aren't covered with adequate teachers."
A chronic problem
Student attendance is a central issue in conversations about turning around low-performing schools, but in recent years how often teachers come to class has also become a focus.
Some school leaders say that excessive teacher absenteeism creates disruption and drives inconsistencies in what students are learning. It also carries the cost of hiring substitute teachers. Last school year the Buffalo district allocated $7.5 million to pay for substitute teachers, up from $5.9 million in 2011.
The issue has become enough of a concern that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights now requires school districts to report teacher attendance every two years. In 2014, the National Council on Teacher Quality also collected its own data to compile a national report comparing 40 of the country’s largest urban districts.
Although that study ranked Buffalo second for teachers with excellent attendance – those who missed three or fewer days – the district topped the list for those with chronic absences, defined as missing more than 18 days.
A similar analysis by Education Week found that one in four teachers nationwide missed 10 or more days of school. The Office of Civil Rights data indicate that in Buffalo, that number is nearly three out of four.
Both studies found that teacher absenteeism rates were virtually the same for schools with high and low concentrations of students living in poverty, but in Buffalo that was not always the case.
The four schools where fewer than half of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch also had some of the lowest teacher absenteeism in the district. That included City Honors School, Olmsted 64, Olmsted 156 and Discovery School in South Buffalo.
The two Olmsteds had the best teacher attendance in the district, and both saw a decrease in absenteeism between 2009 and 2014.
Among schools with higher poverty rates, however, the range of teacher absenteeism was much wider, with some lower-income schools posting low absentee figures and others having some of the worst teacher attendance in the district.
At schools where roughly 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, the percentage of teachers missing 10 or more days ranged from 46 percent – one of the lowest absenteeism rates in the district – to 100 percent of the staff who missed at least 10 days.
The high number of teacher absences is driven in part by the terms of the BTF contract, which is widely regarded as one of the strongest in the country.
The National Council on Teacher Quality maintains a database of contracts for 114 urban school systems, across which teachers get an average of 12.7 days of leave each year. The number ranges from 8 to 25, putting Buffalo's 17 days at the high end.
This isn’t the first time the issue of teacher attendance was part of the conversation in the Buffalo Public Schools.
In 2010, the district released a report on employee absenteeism that found that on a typical day more than 10 percent of school employees were absent. School officials decried what they called a “culture of absenteeism” and suggested a correlation between the number of days missed by a teacher and a student’s academic performance.
Rumore criticized the study because it included days teachers missed class to attend mandated meetings and training sessions.
“The last time they did a study like this they included days that teachers were out for in-services, chemotherapy and workers comp,” he said, referring to the 2010 report.
Regardless of the reason, the district’s study found that the more often teachers missed class, the more their students’ performance suffered.
At the time, the district noted that students whose teacher missed five to 10 days scored an average of three points lower on the state English assessment than students whose teacher missed four or fewer days. Students whose teachers missed 11 or more days scored an average of eight points lower.
In math, students whose teacher missed five to 10 days scored an average of six points lower than students whose teacher missed four or fewer days; those whose teacher missed 11 or more days scored an average of 11 points lower.
The district has taken some steps to ensure teachers are in the classroom more often. For example, it has tried to schedule more meetings and training at times outside of the school day so that teachers do not have to miss class when they are required to attend.
Cash said the next step will be collecting more data to get a better handle on which teachers are chronically absent and looking for any particular trends at schools or among groups.
Another step will be improving the culture in buildings so that everyone – teachers and students alike - want to come to school.
"Culture is absolutely important," Cash said. "There's a lot of work I've done since I've come here to make these cultures stronger, quicker. As we stabilize the schools and the district culture here in Buffalo, I expect that these numbers will go up."