Study: No Child Left Behind Improved Teacher Attendance in Struggling Schools

When No Child Left Behind ended, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, head of the country’s largest teachers union, described it as an “end to our national nightmare and beginning of something so much better for kids.”

Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act last December brought the NCLB era to a close and with it the power of the federal government to hold schools strictly accountable for student learning.

But new — and largely ignored — research on those federally driven measures finds NCLB had an interesting impact on teachers in struggling schools: it pushed them to show up for work more often.

The study — published late last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Policy Analysis and Management — joins a fairly large body of evidence suggesting that, contrary to its reputation as a disastrous policy, NCLB had a number of positive effects.

(The 74: What if No Child Left Behind Worked and Nobody Realized It?)

This comes as many states plan to alter how they evaluate school performance and decide on consequences for the ones not doing well to comply with the newly minted ESSA.

The study’s author Seth Gershenson, a professor at American University, told The 74 that he wanted to examine the impact of accountability on teacher attendance, in part because he wasn’t sure what to expect. On the one hand, teachers may be more stressed because of the demand to hit ever-increasing test score targets, which could spur absences. On the other hand, greater pressure may improve teacher effort, translating into fewer days away from the classroom.

“Theoretically we could have expected a positive or negative effect on absences,” said Gershenson.

To answer that question, Gershenson examined data from schools in North Carolina that didn’t meet student achievement targets — referred to as adequate yearly progress or AYP — as required by NCLB. Continued failure would lead to a variety of escalating consequences  — sometimes called “cascading sanctions” — at these schools, from being put on a watch list to firing the principal and some teachers.

The study uses data between 1997 and 2004 to compares trends in teacher absences between schools that didn’t make their yearly progress goals to schools that did, both before and after NCLB was put into place. The idea is that any change in teacher absences between the two groups of schools after the law was implemented can be attributed to its accountability pressure.

Gershenson finds significant effects: in schools that didn’t hit their yearly progress goals, the average teacher was in attendance for one extra day out of the 180-day school year.  This is a decent-sized impact considering the average North Carolina teacher was absent about eight days.

“Absences decrease when the accountability pressure turns on,” Gershenson said.

That’s probably a good thing, considering the strong (and unsurprising) evidence that teacher absences harm student achievement, probably because students learn less when there’s a substitute.

Gershenson’s data confirms both that teacher absences reduced student test scores, while accountability pressure improved them, at least in North Carolina. He estimates that increases in teacher attendance likely explain a small but noticeable fraction of those test score gains. Gershenson also said that his paper may actually underestimate the effects of the Bush-era law, because even schools that did hit their yearly progress benchmarks likely still felt some expectation from the policy to improve.

But is it really a good thing that teachers take fewer days off?

Not all absences are bad: If a teacher is sick, he or she shouldn’t be pressured to show up for work. Having more days off may also make the job more appealing or less stressful. That’s a legitimate concern, said Gershenson.

“To the extent that absences operate as a therapeutic recharging days and teachers are foregoing that, that could be problematic,” he said.

Other research has shown that NCLB did not seem to harm teachers’ job satisfaction.

The paper can’t sort out “good” from “bad” absences, but does find evidence of a significant drop in frequent absenteeism — more than 15 days a year — in schools facing sanctions. Those days may not be as likely to diminish in the face of NCLB worries if they were due to sickness or family emergencies.

Gershenson also finds suggestive evidence that low-performing teachers — as measured by their contribution to student test scores — were especially likely to increase attendance in response to accountability.

The paper is largely consistent with another study finding that when Chicago Public Schools made it easier for principals to fire non-tenured teachers, attendance went up.

The absenteeism research is further evidence that test-based accountability can produce meaningful benefits.

But NCLB has been widely pilloried by the media, politicians, and parents concerned about too much testing. Indeed, there is a good deal of research suggesting that the law’s emphasis on test scores had a variety of unintended consequences, including cheating and teaching to the test.

Still, the numerous research studies finding positive effects of NCLB have often gone unmentioned in press coverage and post-mortems of the law.

As Tom Dee, a Stanford professor, previously told The 74, “The public perception seems to be that No Child Left Behind has failed, but the available research evidence suggests it led to meaningful — but not transformational — changes in school performance.”

Gershenson said that, to date, his paper has received almost no media attention.

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