Do teachers' absences affect student learning?
Seventy-three Western Pennsylvania public school districts paid nearly $25 million for substitute teachers to cover classes when full-time educators were not in the classroom during the last school year, according to records for 17,000 teachers reviewed by the Tribune-Review.
Teachers in the seven-county area were out of their classrooms for an average of more than 7 percent of the school year, above the 5.3 percent national average for public school educators cited in a widely recognized study by the Washington-based Center for American Progress.
In comparison, full-time American workers in general were absent about 3 percent of the time, statistics indicate.
The districts with the highest absenteeism rates were Derry Area (12.17 percent, or an average of 21.9 days that teachers were not in the classroom), Laurel Highlands (10.61 percent, or 19.1 days) and Leechburg (9.83 percent, or 17.7 days).
The lowest rates were at Baldwin-Whitehall and Duquesne, both averaging 1.8 percent, or three days each, and Montour, which averaged 4.6 percent, or eight days per teacher.
Seven districts — Chartiers Valley, Derry Area, East Allegheny, Kiski, New Kensington-Arnold, North Allegheny and Uniontown — refused to release the records, but the Trib appealed to the state Office of Open Records and won, forcing them to relinquish the information.
High price to pay
In an era of dwindling education funding, the Trib analysis fueled an ongoing debate between teachers, who say they're entitled to time off from jobs that have become increasingly stressful, and critics, who claim absenteeism compounds districts' financial woes and hinders student achievement.
“Learning shuts down on those days,” said Cheryl Boise of the Commonwealth Education Organization, a Harrisburg nonprofit. “You're paying two people, and there is no learning, period. It's really baby-sitting.”
Wythe Keever of the Pennsylvania State Education Association said the findings are unfair because “teachers work very hard at their jobs,” spending countless unpaid hours doing school-related work such as writing college recommendation letters and grading papers.
Education Department spokesman Timothy Eller said the state does not maintain records of districts' spending on substitute teachers, but the Trib analysis showed costs reaching into the millions of dollars for some districts.
The largest payouts were by Pittsburgh Public Schools, which spent $4.8 million; Hempfield, which spent $1 million; and Peters Township, which spent $627,380.
Too much time off?
The state mandates that teachers receive 10 paid sick days. Most districts negotiate paid time off for emergencies and bereavement. Jury duty, military leave, paid maternity leave, long-term medical leave and professional development days (training) were included in the numbers given to the newspaper.
Some administrators attributed higher absenteeism rates to long-term illnesses, while others, such as Cornell Superintendent Donna Bellas and Derry Area Superintendent David Welling, pointed to younger faculties and a large number of maternity leaves.
Teachers' proximity to youngsters prone to illnesses is another factor, officials said.
“When flu season hits, in one building, you could have an outbreak that lasts a month,” said Laurel Highlands Superintendent Jesse Wallace.
But one school board member thinks time-off policies have gone too far, particularly in light of the length of the school year. The state mandates 180 days of instruction for students. In-service day requirements vary.
“When teacher contracts are negotiated, they (the unions) are rock-solid pros, and they go up against a bunch of rookies on the school board who don't know their butts from a hole in the ground,” said retired school psychologist and Southmoreland school board member Catherine Fike.
A bill requiring school districts and teachers unions to negotiate sick leave and sabbaticals died in committee last year, said state Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, chairman of the House Education Committee.
A study of federal data by the Center for American Progress found that by the end of their public school education, a typical graduating senior will have been taught the equivalent of two-thirds of a school year by someone other than their full-time teacher.
‘A day was always wasted'
Mary Raich of Seward, who taught communications for nearly 30 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and now substitutes in Indiana County, said she “never took a day off” when she was teaching full-time because “a day was always wasted.”
She said learning is built in levels and consistency is crucial. “Plus, children play games with subs,” she said.
Alex Leonard, a sophomore business management major at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, said, “You knew you weren't going to do anything that day (when a substitute was in the classroom).”
Several administrators, including Leechburg Superintendent James Budzilek, said days devoted to professional development — it was once required by the state — boosted their numbers.
State lawmakers put a two-year moratorium on mandatory professional development in July 2011.
“One of the clear needs that teachers have is for professional development,” Keever said. “To imply that this is somehow a misuse of their time is simply misleading.”
Laurel Highlands' Wallace said training days are still considered workdays.
But Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute, a think tank focused on government issues, said, “If you're going to take a paycheck, you should be there doing your job.”
Search for solutions
Baldwin-Whitehall Superintendent Randal Lutz — the district had the lowest absenteeism rate in the Trib survey — said his district tries to limit professional development to the summer.
Other districts do the same, while some are looking to traditional private-sector rules to curb absenteeism.
The Woodland Hills School District acknowledges its problems and now requires medical documentation for teachers who are out for three or more days and has sent notices to those who used more than half of their sick time by October, Assistant Superintendent Alan Johnson said.
Others rotate in-house teachers to cover classes, said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
The key is building “a work environment that people want to come to,” Lutz said.
“A substitute, no matter how great they are, can't deliver the content on the same level as a (full-time) teacher,” he said.
Click here to see teacher absentee rates for all districts.
Amanda Dolasinski, Jewels Phraner and Rossilynne Skena are staff writers for Trib Total Media.Dolasinski can be reached at 724-836-6220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Phraner can be reached at 724-850-1218 or email@example.com.Skena can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.