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Consequences of High Teacher Absence Rates

2347 words (9 pages) Essay in Education

08/02/20 Education Reference this

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Too many teachers are absent from government schools in India. In this context, the teacher is considered absent if he/she could not be found in the school during regular working hours and excludes part-time or volunteer teachers. The quantifier ‘too many’ refers to the findings by Chaudhury et al. (2006) that 25 percent of teachers were found to be absent from their schools during three, unannounced visits to about 3000 government run and financed schools across India. The 25 percent figure is also characterized as high in comparison to the absence rates of teachers, measured through the same methodology and study in four other lower and upper middle-income countries[1] – in bordering Bangladesh (16 percent), Ecuador (14 percent), Indonesia (19 percent), and Peru (11 percent) (Chaudhury et al. 2006; World Bank 2018). For comparison to what this rate looks like in a high-income country, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that teachers in 40 of the United States’ largest metropolitan areas were present for work 94 percent of the time (NCTQ, 2014). The goal of my analysis of this serious problem in India is to reduce teacher absenteeism rates, with the explicit objective of reducing the percentage of teachers absent in government schools from 25 percent to 13 percent by 2022, as measured through a nationwide random survey, following the methodology from Chaudhury et al. (2006).

First, I address what the consequences of high teacher absence rates are, in terms of how this problem affects different groups of stakeholders. A very important group affected by high teacher absenteeism rates is students. Empirical evidence suggests that high rates of teacher absence has a negative impact on student outcomes. Kremer et al., (2005) demonstrated in India, that a 10 percent increase in teacher absence was associated with a 1.8 percent decrease in student attendance, and a 0.02 standard deviation decline in test scores of fourth grade students. Das et al. (2004) showed in Zambia that a 5 percent increase in teacher absentee rates reduced learning by 4 to 8 percent of average gains over the academic year in English and mathematics. A foundational paper by Ehrenberg, Ehrenberg, Rees and Ehrenberg (1991) found that to the extent that less learning occurs when regular teachers are absent, student motivation to attend school also falls, and student academic performance may suffer.

The effect of teacher absenteeism on students tends to go further than just their learning outcomes. Teachers are often considered role models and mentors by their students, so students may imitate such negative work norms by missing classes, or demonstrate other undesirable behavior (Rosenblatt, Shapira-Lishchinsky, & Shirom, 2010; Patrinos & Kagia, 2007). In addition, if absent teachers are replaced by less qualified substitutes, this may impact their students’ level of achievement, particularly if those absences were unexpected (Miller, Murnane, & Willett, 2007).

There is evidence to show that society as whole tends to suffer as well, when its teachers do not show up to class to teach. There is an overall loss in equity, as absence rates of teachers were found to be generally higher in low-income states in India, with a 4.7 percentage point reduction in predicted absence rates when per capita income was doubled (Chaudhury et al., 2006). This disadvantages students from poorer backgrounds, for many of whom school is one out a few existing alternatives for economic and social advancement (Patrinos, 2013). In rural India, small primary schools are sometimes staffed by a single teacher, so when the teacher is absent, the school closes entirely. In nearly 12 percent of the unaccounted visits, surveyors in India encountered schools which were closed because no teacher was present (Chaudhury et al., 2006). If this happens often enough, students and families may become discouraged, increasing student absenteeism and compounding the costs of teacher absence (Rogers & Vegas, 2009). It can also be argued the resulting loss of human capital from poor student outcomes, as mentioned earlier, has important macro-level implications for society, since education quality is the key ingredient to boost economic growth (Hanushek & Kimko, 2000).

The next relevant stakeholder is the government itself. Teacher absenteeism in India has dire consequences on the finances of the education sector. Teacher salaries typically account for over 80 percent of non-capital education spending (Dongre et al., 2014), and are now the most expensive component of the recently passed Right to Education Act in India (Muralidharan et al., 2017). Consequently, the direct losses from teacher absenteeism coming from days of work that the teacher did not attend, but the government continued to pay for, was a staggering $2 billion a year in India, or 0.3 percent of its GDP (Chaudhury et al., 2006).

Teacher absenteeism is an ongoing problem that occurs in many countries apart from India, and the literature points to a lack of accountability and few performance incentives for teachers as the main drivers of this pervasive problem, i.e. teachers tend not to be held accountable for their performance in the classroom. I will explain this further by expanding on four types of evidence: higher-ranking teachers are found to be absent more often than lower ranking teachers, teacher absence is found to be higher in remote areas and in less educated communities, there is a significant difference in teacher attendance rates between government and private schools, as well as little to no incentives for good teacher performance in schools.

Research from Bangladesh, India, Papua New Guinea, and Peru have demonstrated that head teachers were more likely to be absent than other teachers (Alcazar et al. 2006; Chaudhury et al. 2006; Kremer et al. 2005; World Bank 2004). For example, head teachers are 5 to 13 percentage points more likely to be absent than other teachers in Peru. In India, administrative and official duties that may legitimately cause head teachers to miss more classes than their colleagues, appear to be a minor explanation for absence (Kremer et al., 2005). As head teachers hold more power, they are more difficult to hold accountable. In addition, head teachers can propagate this lack of accountability by setting an example for the teaching staff. In Indonesia, teacher absenteeism was likely to be higher if head teachers were absent (Akhmadi & Suryadarma, 2004).

Absence is also found to be higher in remote schools, i.e. schools that are farther away from a Ministry of Education office, as they are probably less subject to official supervision and visits (Rogers & Vegas, 2009). Rogers and Vegas (2009) also find the existence of higher absence rates among teachers in communities where the students’ parents are less educated, which may reflect communities that are not as able to monitor and enforce the attendance of teachers.

Another indicator that accountability matters for teacher absence is the gap between teacher attendance in government and private schools. In India, Kremer et al. (2005) find that private school teachers have absence rates one‐third lower than their government school counterparts in the same villages – despite the fact that private school salaries are only one‐fifth to one‐quarter that of government school salaries. In neighboring Pakistan, Das, Pandey, and Zajonc (2006) find an even larger attendance gap: government‐school teachers are absent 3.2 days per month, compared with an already high 1.8 days per month for private school teachers. An explanation for this from the literature is that private schools can fire teachers for poor effort, unlike government schools. This lower level of autonomy faced by the local administration of government schools is also corroborated by the literature. Despite the very high absence rate in India, only one in 3000 head teachers had ever fired a teacher for excessive absence in government schools (Kremer et al 2005).

The literature also provides insights into low performance incentives as a primary driver of teacher absence. In her analysis of teacher pay structures, Vegas (2007) reported that the greater part of compensation paid to teachers is unrelated to assessments of how well the teacher is performing, either in terms of student outcomes or teacher effort. Peru fits this description well, with little incentive for performance as shown by Alcazar et al. (2006). Promotion possibilities could attempt to offer motivation to the better teachers, even without incentives for performance, but in practice, promotions are seen to be awarded not only on the basis of merit, but also on the basis of connections and corruption (Rogers & Vegas, 2009).

Finally, I contend that in trying to recognize what the causes of teacher absenteeism are, and then crafting policies to reduce it, which is the goal of my analysis, it would be important to understand the pattern of teacher absences. As Chaudhury et al. (2006) call attention to, if a small number of teachers are responsible for a majority of the absences, then policymakers may want to tailor policies to those identified missing teachers accordingly. If it turns out that the missing teachers are “ghost workers”, in that they either do not exist, or are on the payroll to gain a salary, then the solution will probably be to purge them from the system. However, if the absent teachers are missing school because of say, extended illness, as could happen in countries hit by the HIV/AIDS crisis, then school systems may need to focus their efforts on making sure that classes are covered by other teachers and coordinate with public health officials on the long-term response (Rogers & Vegas, 2009). In all but one of the six countries analyzed by Chaudhury et al. (2006), frequent absence appears to be a system‐wide problem, in the sense that many teachers were absent at higher rates than would typically be expected in a developed‐country school system, versus a small number of teachers being responsible for a large share of the absence.[2] This further implies that the reasons for absence are also likely to be systemic in nature, and when generating alternatives to this problem, inducements and system change policies should be considered and developed.


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[1] India, Bangladesh, Indonesia are classified as lower-middle income economies, and Ecuador and Peru are classified as upper-middle income economies by the World Bank as of July 01, 2018

[2] An exception was Ecuador, where it appeared that a small minority of teachers accounted for a big chunk of the absence.

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