The Profiler: He IDs the Most-Absent Teachers

There's a profile of the type of teacher most likely to be absent on any day. Meet profiler Raegen Miller, associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress.

Miller is to teacher absenteeism what Karen Silkwood was to nuclear power safety issues. The 40-something former math teacher and ex-president of a California teachers union is not out to protect the status quo. He's out to protect students.

Miller has curly, light brown hair and looks younger than his age, which he attributes to his years of working with high-school students. (Others, I suspect, may attribute their grey hairs to years of working with high-school students.)

In his extensive research on teacher absenteeism, Miller used statistical methods to profile the following:

The type of teacher who uses the most discretionary days off: female, mid-career, fairly long commute to work.

The type of school where teachers are absent most: large, elementary, high percentage of low-income students.

Peak times of the year in which teachers take the most discretionary days off: December and spring.

Day of the week teachers are most likely to be absent: Fridays, when 5.9 percent are absent. (At 5.1 percent, Mondays are second.)

Day of the week teachers are least likely to be absent: Wednesdays, during which 4.4 percent are absent.

In Miller's 2008 headline-making study, "Tales of Teacher Absence: New Research Yields Patterns that Speak to Policymakers," he notes that on average 5.3 percent of teachers are absent daily. This compares to 1.7 percent of employees who are absent in executive and non-teaching professional positions on an average day, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among other public sector employees, 2.3 percent are absent on average each day.

Miller notes that the statistics cited in his study remain dead-on today.

Teachers tell us kids are germy and hence the absences. But teacher absence rates in the U.K. (3.2 percent) and Queensland, Australia (3.1 percent) are significantly lower than those in the United States, Miller notes.

Maybe U.S. kids are just germier than those in the U.K. and Australia.

Or maybe not.

Researchers are just beginning to learn the impact of teacher absences on student achievement. "If a teacher is absent every third Monday, that's different than one stretch," Miller says. "Which is worse? My feeling is this: kids detect when a teacher is abusing leave privileges as opposed to being absent for family or medical issues. A teacher is in a position to demonstrate constant caring and love. And if that teacher is absent in a way that's sending signals that students can interpret as meaning their well-being and progress isn't important, it can affect kids' feelings toward school and can affect their trajectory. A student might not trust the next teacher or buy into the program.

"Children's ideas of teachers' absences are a very big deal," he concludes. "Kids have a lot to say and I don't think anyone has asked."