5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Investigates Teacher Absenteeism in Minn.

Updated: 11/15/2013 7:33 AM KSTP.com By: Stephen Tellier

How often is your child's teacher out of the classroom?

A recent report found about two out of every five Minnesota teachers missed more than 10 days in a single school year, and their absence could be taking a toll on your student.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS started digging into this issue after that report caught our attention. But we analyzed the data ourselves, spent months crunching the numbers, and spoke with dozens of people inside and outside the state's education system. What we found has many -- including some lawmakers -- calling for the state to take action. 

Everyone remembers their favorite teacher, and Minnesota's teachers do a fantastic job of teaching our children. But when they're not in class, learning slows. Some estimates have found the average student spends about six months of K-12 class time with a substitute teacher.

Teachers are at the center of your child's learning. But just like everyone else, teachers get sick, have children, and suffer tragedies.

That's when Steve Andrews steps in.

"I love the interaction. I love the creativity," Andrews said.

He loves to teach, and local school districts love him. He's a substitute teacher, in high demand.

"On the 6th, I'm going to be at one place. On the 8th, I'm some place," Andrews said, looking at his schedule.

He's often booked weeks in advance.

"I don't ever have a day off unless I want it," Andrews said.

That's good for Andrews. But is it good for your kids?

"We know that teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement of any in-school factor," said Kathy Saltzman, the Minnesota state director of Students First, a national education reform group which recently stated in a brief, "... high rates of teacher absence has a direct, negative relationship to student achievement."

Saltzman said when teachers are out of the classroom, those in the classroom suffer.

Recent research backs that up. A 2007 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found, "... 10 days of teacher absences reduce students' mathematics achievement by 3.3 percent," and a 2009 report from the American Education Finance Association found, "... students whose teachers miss more days for sickness score lower on state achievement tests."

"This is as important to teachers as it is to parents as it is to kids," Saltzman said.

In Minnesota, teacher absenteeism hasn't been on the radar -- until now.

Last year, the Center for American Progress, a think tank, published a report on teacher absenteeism. It found Minnesota had the nation's 11th-highest rate of teacher absences -- about 42 percent of teachers missed more than ten days of school during the 2009-2010 school year.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS wanted to find out why, and how many teachers were absent in your child's district.

We requested the underlying, district-by-district data the report was based on from the federal government. The data showed a few districts in the Twin Cities metro had teacher absenteeism rates higher than 70 percent, meaning more than 70 percent of teachers missed more than ten days of school during the 2009-2010 school year. Several other districts had rates higher than 50 percent.

But our investigation also found inconsistencies in how districts reported the data to the federal government. Some counted professional development days as absences, used different definitions for absences, and included non-classroom teachers like social workers in their data.

"If you know any teacher -- any teacher in the state of Minnesota -- they do not want to be absent," said Patty Phillips, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

According to that national data, about 72 percent of her district's teachers missed more than ten days of school. But Phillips called that number "misleading."

"Literally half of our considered "absences" were for professional development. So right away, I said, 'This is distorting reality,'" Phillips said. "We saw that there were 91 field trip days, jury duty days -- there were all kinds of things counted that were truly not 'absenteeism,'" Phillips said.

Phillips said her district's true teacher absenteeism rate is about 34 percent, meaning one in three teachers misses more than ten days.

"It's not an issue in our district. Absenteeism is not an issue," Phillips said.

That's what we heard from several school districts. Still, others said teacher absenteeism deserves a closer look.

"When we see data like this, we should have the courage to say, 'Let's take a look at this,'" Saltzman said.

Minnesota's heavy emphasis on professional development, union contracts that allow 10 to 15 days of leave per school year, and hundreds of unused days to be carried over, even automated systems that some say make calling in sick too easy -- educators we spoke with pointed to all as issues that should be looked at, in an effort to answer one question.

"How do we keep teachers in the classroom?" Saltzman asked.

"They need to sit down and talk seriously about teacher absenteeism," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton.

Erickson was a teacher for years before moving from the classroom to the Capitol.

"I never wanted to be absent from my classroom, even for professional development," Erickson said.

She's now the ranking Republican on Minnesota's House Education Policy Committee, and said the key is getting more reliable data on how often -- and why -- teachers aren't in their classrooms teaching. 

The state currently doesn't collect any data whatsoever on teacher absenteeism.

"It probably behooves the Department of Education in Minnesota to collect some data and take a look at teacher absenteeism," Erickson said.

Nearly everyone we spoke with agrees.

"That would be wonderful. I would certainly support that," Phillips said.

Because take out the teacher, and the chemistry of a classroom just isn't the same.

"There's no substitute for a teacher in the classroom," Erickson said.

We also spoke with Education Minnesota, the state's largest teacher's union. Its president, Denise Specht, called the Center for American Progress report "flawed," and stressed that many teachers want to be in their classrooms so badly, they work right through sickness -- even cancer. Sometimes, they have to be told to stay home so they don't get their students sick. That's what Specht said happened in many districts during the 2009-2010 school year -- the year the absenteeism data was collected -- when a particularly virulent flu strain hit the state.

Federal data shows education workers are absent more than the average American worker -- but only by a very small margin, which can likely be explained by the fact that teachers are surrounded by children and germs all day.

Research shows teachers tend to be absent more often in large school districts that serve more students who come from poorer families. That means cutting down on absenteeism could help close Minnesota's stubborn student achievement gap.

Another possible benefit: saving money. It's estimated that teacher absences cost American school districts about $4 billion a year, and the Anoka-Hennepin School District recently spent $3.3 million on substitute teachers in a single school year.

The following data was provided by the federal government, and was compiled by the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection survey for the 2009-2010 school year. 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found inconsistencies in the data -- some districts counted professional development days as teacher absences, used different definitions for what qualifies as an absence, and counted non-classroom staff as teachers.

If you'd like more information on your district's data, please contact your district directly.

Editor's note: some districts are not included in this map because they did not submit data to the federal government.