Illinois for years has tracked how often students skip school, but data made public last week show how often their teachers miss school — and the numbers are revealing.
Across the state, 23.5 percent of public school teachers are absent more than 10 days in the school year. That’s almost 1 in 4 teachers statewide who aren’t in the classroom, according to data made public by the state for the first time in the annual Illinois Report Card, a compilation of data that paints a broad picture of schools.
Teacher attendance is considered critical because it provides continuity in the classroom, both for instruction and providing attention to students. Kids don’t do as well when teachers are absent for more than 10 days in a school year, according to research cited by the U.S. Department of Education, and districts end up spending money to pay substitutes.
At some 3,600 public schools, the teacher absence rates ranged widely, with nearly 1,600 schools, mostly in the Chicago area, faring worse than the state average. The numbers surprised some administrators and teacher union officials who questioned how the figures were calculated and whether they are accurate.
At the same time, nearly 500 schools had excellent attendance, meaning none of their teachers were absent more than 10 days of the school year.
One of those excellent-attendance schools is Evergreen Elementary School in west suburban Carol Stream, where Principal Laura Pfanenstiel talked about the atmosphere that encourages teachers to attend school regularly.
It’s common for parents in the community to be former students, she said, who now send their own kids to Evergreen. Teachers and substitute teachers tend to stay put.
“It is like a family,” Pfanenstiel said. The school even uses one of its classrooms for child care — specifically for teachers’ young children — so educators know their kids are close.
In contrast, north Cook County’s Glenview School District 34 showed high absenteeism rates, ranging from about 57 to 83 percent across district schools. That’s more than double or triple the state average.
“This is a concern of the district, and this is something we will be addressing,” said interim Superintendent Griff Powell. “Teachers with students is a sacred time and takes precedence. However, we need to carefully balance this with the personal situations of our teachers.”
He said the main reasons for the high absentee rates in the district were sick days and leaves under the federal Family Medical Leave Act.
“Obviously we want to be respectful of the personal situations that would result in teachers needing to be out of the classrooms for these reasons,” Powell said.
Teachers are entitled to sick days and personal days outlined in union contracts — the number of those days differs by district — and there’s a reason for them, said Aviva Bowen, spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
“Teachers and school staff have one of the hardest jobs in the world, often working in high-stress environments without the resources they need. When teachers take their contractual sick days, they do so to get well and protect the health of their students,” she said.
The federal government began compiling and publishing data on chronic teacher absences several years ago, and Illinois law requires that teacher absence information be included in the state’s report card, which is posted online for the public.
However, the federal guidelines for determining teacher absenteeism differ from Illinois law. For example, the federal government includes maternity leave and FMLA leaves as days of absence, but Illinois law indicates that those leaves would not be counted as absences. The maternity leave issue can significantly affect absenteeism rates, especially in school districts that hire starting teachers, who are often women.
There is agreement in both the federal and state guidelines that teacher training days would not be counted as absences.
This year, the Illinois State Board of Education pulled 2013-14 teacher absence data from the federal government to include in the Illinois Report Card. Those data would have come from districts themselves and would have been reported based on the federal guidelines.
In St. Charles Community Unit School District 303, the district did count maternity leave and other time off considered absences under the federal guidelines, and several schools had teacher absence rates higher than the state average. Spokesman Jim Blaney was surprised particularly at one district school where about 50 percent of teachers were absent 10 or more days.
“At first I thought there is no way this can be true. Then I dug into it,” Blaney said, adding that the data appear to be accurate.
But some districts with high absenteeism rates say their numbers aren’t accurate because they didn’t report correctly to the federal government.
“This is our fault. It is the district’s fault,” said Nancy Wagner, superintendent of Beach Park School District 3 in Lake County. Across schools, between 52 and 100 percent of teachers were absent more than 10 days, according to the data posted in the Illinois Report Card. “Those numbers are really too high,” she said, pointing out that things such as field trips were included in the calculations when they should not have been considered absences.
The Tribune reviewed demographic data of nearly 1,000 schools that had teacher absence rates of 10 percent or less and found that those schools tended to have higher percentages of white students and lower percentages of low-income students compared with state averages. The teachers tended to have higher levels of experience, compared with state averages, and students had higher-than-average attendance rates.
Schools with high teacher absence rates tended to have higher-than-average percentages of low-income students.
Those factors and more can shape the number of days teachers are absent.
Bowen, of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said in looking at districts with higher absenteeism: “We must look first at the data to ensure it is being accurately and consistently reported, but also the school climate. Factors like inconsistent leadership, an unsafe environment, over-testing, and a higher proportion of students dealing with trauma or poverty can have a great impact on the well-being of teachers, administrators and students alike.”
In Chicago Public Schools, teacher absenteeism ranged from a high of about 82 percent of teachers absent more than 10 days to no teachers absent more than 10 days.
The district average was 27.5 percent, just above the state average.
The absentee rates can be found on illinoisreportcard.com.