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Myths and Realities About Teacher Absenteeism: The Case of Buenos Aires

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By Silvia Montoya*

On any given day in the city of Buenos Aires, approximately one in every ten teachers is absent. This percentage is greater than the observed figures in first world countries, while inferior to the figures reported in other developing countries and in other provinces in Argentina.

The absences are costly, not only in budgetary terms, but also for their effect on student learning (especially in more vulnerable schools). While the financial cost is more significant for longer absences (which require substitutes), shorter absences can also have a significant impact on teaching and learning processes when they cause missed days or inadequate coverage.

The Simplified Data

The total of all reported cases in Buenos Aires in 2013 amounted to a little more than 2 million absences, or slightly more than one million days of classes. With around 50,000 teachers working for the government of the City of Buenos Aires, this would signify a loss of 10% of class days or an average of 20 days per year.

Absences according to characteristic principles (in %)

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Source: DGECE – Ministerio de Educación, Ciudad de Buenos Aires – SIAL y Base de Liquidación de Haberes – Ministerio de Modernización.

Illness is a major reason why teachers are absent. This may reflect the nature of the profession. Teachers encounter work stress, symptoms and complications of vocal strain, and back pain among other illnesses.

There is a concentration of shorter absences in April, June, September, and November. Of the teachers that take sick leave, 1/3 did so on Mondays. Meanwhile, around 40% of three-day absences are concentrated on Thursdays and Fridays.

A greater proportion of absences occur in the southern districts of Buenos Aires where the more vulnerable populations live. That being said, this also corresponds to the way in which teacher positions are distributed.

To approximate the potential impact of absences on learning, we analyzed the relationship between the number of reported cases in terms of teaching positions of each establishment and the Equity Index and Educational Quality in Argentina (IECEP). The association is slightly negative and in line with what was found in the literature on this topic. The study determined that each 10 absences lowers the average in mathematics to an extent equivalent to the difference between having a beginner teacher and one with more experience.

How much do absences cost?

Education systems invest more in teacher salaries and benefits than in any other category of expenditure, so it is not surprising that the financial costs of teacher absenteeism are high. With 5.3% of teachers absent on any given day, 24 stipends for substitute teachers, and the associated administrative expenditures, the costs amount to at least $4 billion a year.

The table makes a first approximation to the absenteeism costs according to duration. In 2013, the administrative cost without imputing would be around $800 million. This is the most conservative estimate. A second alternative would be to calculate the costs for absences of three days or longer, ignoring the costs of short absences. It is also possible to eventually consider a third alternative, which is to calculate costs only in terms of absences of more than 10 days. This would lead to increase costs by at least one third.

Cost of Absences – 2013 – Current Pesos and as a % of Payroll Sanctioned

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Source: DGECE-MEGC en base a base a Base de Liquidación de Haberes – Ministerio de Modernización.

Can Costs be Reduced? The Options Menu

How many of these absences can be reduced without changing the regulatory framework? What kind of mechanisms should be considered? What are the benchmarks and what would this imply in terms of public resources?

All of the instruments or policy variants to consider can be grouped into two categories: controlling absenteeism or promoting attendance.

Controlling absenteeism only makes sense if the number of unjustified reasons in reported cases is significant and growing, but this does not seem to be the case in Buenos Aires. The concentration of reported absences by the number of days is within the framework provided by the legal standard which regulates activity. This demonstrates that there is not a control problem, but rather a problem with the underlying incentives in the regulatory framework.

Teacher attendance can be promoted either through the use of individual monetary incentives or non-monetary incentives (rewarding non-absenteeism) or through the use of group incentives (so that the control exists between coworkers who encourage engagement and attendance).

The Possible Impact of a Cost Reduction

If we assume a potential reduction of absences by a third in order to match the observable levels in the first world, six days of school would be recovered per year. This would also imply a “bank” of resources for the sector of about $270 million pesos, which is $40 million higher than the financial budget of the student scholarship program of the Ministry of Education for 2013. These resources could increase the salaries of all teachers in an amount equal to the gross salary for a single day of a grade teacher who has 10 years of experience

Estimating the Effect of Reducing Absences

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Source: DGECE-MEGC en base a base a Base de Liquidación de Haberes – Ministerio de Modernización.

One issue that cannot be ignored is that neither the regulatory framework nor the personnel management policy is the only factor that influences teacher absenteeism. There are personal factors, school factors, and other contexts that cannot be easily measured. In general, women tend to leave more for personal and family reasons in all jobs. Distance and transportation factors, as well as weather events can also create problems, all of these in addition to general industry demands. For these reasons, thinking about insurance coverage specific to teachers would not be unreasonable.

This first approximation of the characteristics and consequences, both educational and financial, of teacher absenteeism in the state sector must be complemented with more thorough studies. It would be ideal to analyze the entire education system (including private management, for example) and to incorporate information that analyzes all of the significant factors that contribute to teacher absenteeism.

*Silvia Montoya is the General Director of Evaluation of the Education Quality of the Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires

Photo Credit:  Adam’s Corner / Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (with modifications)

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Julia Yansura #

    Thank you for the interesting article. Teacher absenteeism is certainly a problem when it reaches high levels. However, in my experience as a teacher in the US, I saw many cases of teachers coming to school while they were ill because they felt “guilty” leaving their class or were discouraged by their administration from requesting substitutes.They taught through severe colds, the flu, stomach ailments, and other illnesses. I don’t think this is a positive thing: not only were they less effective teachers on those days that they were ill, they got other students and teachers sick.

    Therefore, I would question the article’s assumption that absenteeism is always negative and teacher presence is always positive. Ideally, teachers will always be present, healthy, and ready to do their best at teaching. In the real world, though, teachers are human beings, and they get sick — especially given their constant, close contact with children and teenagers. To a certain extent, staying home can be a good thing.

    September 17, 2014
  2. Silvia Montoya #

    Dear Julia,

    Thank you very much for your comments. I always appreciate the feedbacks on my works.
    I totally agree with your statement that if a teacher is ill, the best for them and for the children is to recover and, only after it, get back to classes. You can notice that I support the explanation of absenteeism for illness because of the nature of the profession.

    I have to clarify that the aim of the article is not to show “that absenteeism is always negative and teacher presence is always positive”. My intention is to present evidence of teacher absenteeism in the City of Buenos Aires in order to study its financial and educational effects and generate a debate around the incentives of the teachers on absenteeism matters.

    Best regards,

    Silvia Montoya

    September 18, 2014

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