Desperately Seeking Substitutes, Districts Are Becoming Creative

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Superintendent Carol Grosse Peck can't do without her alias.

The schools chief of the Alhambra district in Phoenix takes a turn every year as a substitute teacher in one of her schools. So do about a dozen other administrators in the district's central office.

"We don't sign up under our own names," Ms. Peck explains. Teachers and staff members at the unsuspecting school "might be expecting 'Claudia Paxton,' and in I walk."

The district requires its administrators to put in time as substitutes. Not only does the policy help ensure that regular teachers leave good lesson plans, it throws a few more trained bodies into a widening breach.

In Alhambra and hundreds of other districts nationwide, officials are struggling to find qualified substitutes as the demand grows and a booming economy siphons off candidates. Although national statistics don't exist, many educators say shortages have worsened in the past few years.

To tap and retain more people, administrators are trying out approaches that vary from the obvious--more pay and relaxed qualifications--to the ingenious--posting "help wanted" pleas on school signs and making working as a substitute a condition of teachers' early retirement.

A Competitive Edge

In Alhambra, Ms. Peck sees the promise of better lesson plans as a tool for recruiting new "guest teachers," as she prefers to call them. The 12,500-student system recently sent out letters to recent education graduates at four local universities, inviting them to a seminar for potential subs.

At the seminar,"I let them know that in our district, administrators substitute," said the superintendent, who started her own career filling in for absent teachers. "Consequently, they can expect good lesson plans."

They can also expect more pay as the number of days they put in grows. The basic rate is $60 a day, but substitutes earn $100 a day after putting in 100 days in Alhambra during any one school year. Such differential pay scales are common around the country, but fairly new in the Phoenix area. Ms. Peck calls the 3-year-old pay plan "our competitive edge."

Caryn Shoemaker, the director of professional development for the Arizona Department of Education, says the number of people issued substitute-teacher certificates in the state has remained steady every year for the past five or six years, despite soaring student enrollment. "The problem is, we've needed the number to grow, and it hasn't," she said.

One sign that districts are scrambling is the number of certificates issued for "emergency substitute teachers."

While regular certificates require a four-year degree, the emergency designation can go to someone with as little as a high school education. From 1993 to 1995, Arizona issued from 400 to 500 emergency certificates a year. Last year, 790 people with less than a college education received certification.

Staff Development a Factor

Educators say that enrollment increases coupled with low unemployment rates lie behind most of the current substitute shortages--which may grow worse in many parts of the country. The student boom that began more than 10 years ago is expected to continue full force in the West and the South for another decade, demographers say.

At the same time, the ranks of baby boom teachers taking early retirement will almost certainly grow, opening full-time positions for the many substitutes seeking them. "Much of our new hiring has been off the substitute list," said Verleeta Wooten, the president of the Seattle Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate, echoing others around the country.

Ms. Wooten cites another factor in the shortage: As the amount of time teachers have for professional development grows, so does the number of empty classrooms. "It's been worsening in the last five years as the opportunities for staff development have increased," she said.

In the suburban 38,000-student Howard County, Md., system, one strategy for dealing with the shortage has been to "limit the number of controllable absences," such as those for training, said Kirk Thompson, a personnel specialist there.

The schools in Hilton, N.Y., west of Rochester, took another tack. Officials in the 4,500-student district instituted a higher pay rate for substitutes taking over for teachers who are attending workshops. The standard rate for substituting in Hilton is $60 a day; staff-development substitutes are paid $100 a day.

Christine Yaeger taught in Hilton's middle school before she went on maternity leave last year. Now she substitutes at her old school--but only at the $100 rate. "It's not really worth it" to fill in for $60 a day, given the tax bite and babysitting expenses, she said.

Shortages Vary

But the problems in Maryland and New York pale in relation to those in, say, one of Florida's fastest-growing districts. In the Tampa-area Hillsborough County schools, officials can't meet the daily demand for roughly 650 substitutes. In December, district officials say, an average of 114 of those vacancies went unfilled every school day.

Hillsborough County last fall dropped its requirement that substitutes have two years of college. Now, high school graduates are eligible to substitute once they have taken a three- to 10-day course.

Robert E. Minthorn, the 152,000-student district's supervisor of personnel placement, said that only about 20 percent of his substitute roster consists of people who "just like to sub." Another 20 percent are seeking full-time teaching jobs, which are relatively plentiful in Florida, while about 60 percent are "people who come and go" as they lose jobs, find jobs, or finish school.

"When the unemployment rate dropped way down, we lost a lot of people," Mr. Minthorn said. The substitute list peaked in 1993-94 with about 2,000 people for a teaching force of roughly 9,000. Today the list has dropped to about 1,500 substitutes for almost 11,000 teachers.

State Action

While most of the effort to find and keep good substitutes comes from districts, states also play a role because, in many cases, they regulate subs by issuing certificates, requiring minimum qualifications, or setting work rules.

The Colorado legislature is considering a bill that would allow substitutes to work more than 110 days a year. In Ohio, the state school board has asked lawmakers' permission to drop the requirement that short-term substitutes have coursework beyond a four-year degree in the subjects they teach.

But some experts believe the shortages call for far more than tinkering at the margins, and that the issue of who fills in for absent teachers ought to be addressed as part of school reform.

"The whole substitute problem is a consequence of an antiquated and ineffective structure for teaching," said Hendrik Gideonse, the recently retired coordinator of the secondary teacher education program at the University of Cincinnati. He calls the move to lower qualifications for subs "astonishingly contradictory," given that Ohio has signed on to implement the recommendations of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, which aims to raise standards for teachers.

Mr. Gideonse believes substitute teachers should be paid at the same rate as regular teachers. And to reduce absences, he would allow teachers to use money that is not spent on substitutes for classroom materials.

But even more, he added, schools should move away from the one-teacher, one-classroom model. In a school organized around teams of teachers and other professionals, the absence of one teacher can be taken in stride. And that, Mr. Gideonse says, has benefits for both students and teachers.

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  • Read "Teacher Shortages in America," from Recruiting New Teachers. The organization was founded in 1986 to "raise esteem for teaching, expand the pool of prospective teachers, and improve the nation's teacher recruitment and development policies and practices."
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