No matter the neighborhood, seniority of staff or student demographics, schools face a very similar issue across the Las Vegas Valley: Teachers missing more class than their peers across the state and U.S.
About 56 percent of all teachers in the Clark County School District were absent for more than 10 days of school in 2013-14, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal analysis of new federal education data.
That’s slightly higher than the statewide average of 49 percent, which a recent study from the Education Week Research Center cited as the second-highest rate of teacher absenteeism in the country. Only Hawaii, at 75 percent, posted a higher rate than Nevada.
Clark County schools more than doubled the national rate of about one in four teachers missing more than 10 school days. And the average rate of teacher absences here remained fairly consistent across the district.
Whether schools were housed in the urban core, suburban ring or outlying rural areas, teacher absenteeism hovered around 56 percent.
The average rate shifted between 57 percent and 59 percent for Clark County schools with higher shares of students from low-income households, English language learners and first- and second-year teachers. Teacher absenteeism fell only slightly, to just 52 percent, at schools with the lowest shares of low-income students.
The federal data, which the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office released last month, reports absences for personal and sick leave. It does not include days that teachers missed for professional training and offers no detail on the exact number, or reasons, of absences for each teacher.
Regardless, district officials agreed with research that indicates the more school days that teachers miss, the less learning takes place in the classroom.
“Bottom line: If teachers are out and a substitute comes in for one day a week or six months, it’s detrimental to students,” Mike Barton, the district’s chief student achievement officer, said Thursday.
“It also causes an expense to the district,” he said. “If you’ve got substitutes reporting and the teacher is out … you’re paying. That adds up throughout the year.”
Raegan Miller, a research fellow at the Center on the Future of American Education at Georgetown University, has studied teacher absences. In a 2007 paper, he found that 10 teacher absences can lead to a “statistically and educationally significant” drop in student performance on math tests.
In Clark County, teachers contractually work 180 school days, meaning 10 absences works out to about a day a month.
“There’s a lot of teachers who are not absent at all in a given year,” Miller said.
However, “56 percent of teachers being absent more than 10 days strikes me as a lot,” he added.
In Clark County, teachers can earn up to 15 days of paid sick leave each year, and any remaining days roll over to the next year.
That’s also true for Nevada’s second-largest school district in Washoe County, where only 23.5 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days of school in 2013-14, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Miller, who said 15 sick days may seem “generous” to the general public, also stressed that it’s “completely legitimate” for teachers to use a benefit provided in their contract.
Barton, however, suggested the local teachers union should renegotiate that benefit.
“They have the same agreement that we can always do better with student achievement,” Barton said. “I would hope that they’re open to the idea of revisiting the 15 days and also considering incentives.
“I don’t want to be insensitive about this. People get sick,” he added. “I understand that, but 15 days is quite generous.”
A representative for the union declined an interview request, but Barton pitched the idea of rewarding teachers for not using a portion of their sick days.
Some districts, according to Miller, require teachers to pay a fee for each sick day they claim after a certain number.
“Teachers respond to incentives, but the details matter,” Miller said.
Aside from the generosity of the district’s sick leave policy, Barton and Miller also agreed that principals can use absenteeism rates as a gauge of their school’s culture and working conditions.
The logic, they both point out, goes along these lines: the less stressful the job, the more likely teachers won’t want to miss class
Encouraging positive morale tops the priority list for Chris Lounsbery, principal of Sandy Valley High School.
His campus, about 50 miles from downtown Las Vegas, had just 17 teachers serving 131 middle and high school students in 2013-14, according to the federal data. Only two of Lounsbery’s teachers missed more than 10 days that school year.
“Class sizes do play a role in that,” said Lounsbery, who estimated most classes have 15 to 20 students. “Attendance is a very complex issue, but in Sandy Valley specifically, our teachers are highly motivated to be there every day.”
At that rural community’s high school, the attendance of both students and teachers spiked when the campus switched to a four-day week.
Lounsbery acknowledged not every school can move to that model but encouraged principals to remain creative when considering incentives or other ways to lower teacher absences.
“Check on the morale of your teachers,” he said. “If there’s high absenteeism, maybe you want to look at more positive incentives or maybe ways of having conversations about dedication and commitment. The two should go hand in hand.”
Contact Neal Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton.