Teaching Profession

Policies Allow Districts to Cut Corners With Substitutes

By Vaishali Honawar — September 10, 2007 6 min read

Thousands of students in districts struggling to find teachers entered classrooms in the past few weeks staffed by substitutes. But the bar that Congress and most states and school systems have set for such educators is much lower than for regular classroom teachers.

The majority of states don’t require substitutes to have more than a high school diploma. Nor do they require districts to give them any training before they set foot in classrooms.

In Prince George’s County, Md., administrators had to rope in 140 subs for the opening day of classes after the 134,000-student district, located just outside Washington, failed to fill more than 10 percent of vacancies.

The figure, while high, is by no means unusual. Most big-city districts draw from large pools of substitutes to make up for teacher absenteeism and vacancies throughout the school year. The Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, which helps districts develop training programs, estimates that 8 to 10 percent of teachers in classrooms on any given day, or 274,000 teachers, are substitutes.

Despite subs’ rampant use, the issue has failed until recently to capture the attention of federal lawmakers as they discuss reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. At present, the law only “strongly” recommends that long-term substitute teachers meet requirements for being “highly qualified”; it does nothing more to address minimum qualifications for those teachers. A House draft for the reauthorization proposes grants to high-poverty districts to provide training for substitutes.

The 5½-year-old law does require that parents of children in a Title I school be notified if their children have been taught for four weeks or more by a teacher who is not highly qualified. The law leaves it up to states and districts to define “long-term substitute.” (“Draft NCLB Bill Intensifies the Discussion,” Sept. 5, 2007).

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington, said the need for subs appears to be rising as a large number of teachers from the baby boom generation retire and districts labor to fill jobs. “There has been a lack of publicity on the issue [of substitute-teacher qualifications]. Policymakers deal with issues brought to their attention,” said Mr. Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats. “Otherwise, it just slips by and is not addressed.”

No College Necessary

The federal government’s only requirement of Title I schools that use long-term substitutes—parental notification—is better than nothing but hasn’t been very effective, observers say.

While working on a report covering some Southern states in 2003, Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality, a teacher-advocacy and -research group in Hillsborough, N.C., said his group found superintendents in some rural areas who were having a hard time finding teachers would move substitutes from school to school to circumvent the requirement.

“It is a loophole that has been used by superintendents, and quite frankly, I don’t believe that this is necessarily a malintention,” Mr. Berry said.

Geoffrey Smith, the president of the Substitute Teaching Institute, said most districts consider 21 school days or more to be long-term subbing.

At present, 28 states require nothing more than a high school diploma for subs, even long-term ones, although Mr. Smith pointed out that only about 10 percent of those in the current workforce hold that minimal qualification.

About a third are certified, and another third hold at least a bachelor’s degree, he added.

Still, 90 percent of the substitutes don’t receive any formal training before taking charge of a classroom. “That’s a big area that needs to be addressed and worked on,” Mr. Smith said.

A handful of states have, in recent years, taken steps to improve the quality of their substitute-teacher workforce. For instance, California, which requires all substitutes to have at least a bachelor’s degree, also demands that its long-term substitutes go through a teacher-credentialing program at a college or university. Florida, too, puts substitutes through a training program that has proved effective at preparing candidates for schools, according to Mr. Smith.

In the 57,000-student Boston district, substitutes take an online test before they are granted a job interview. They must have at least a bachelor’s degree, and undergo a training program designed for the district by the Substitute Teaching Institute.

Some districts that do not set a high bar on formal education and training qualifications still say they seek out the most qualified candidates. In Austin, Texas, the 81,450-student district has 1,700 substitutes on its rolls at all times, said Kristen Hilsabeck, the substitute-services coordinator. Although subs don’t have to have a bachelor’s degree, about 75 percent do, she said, and 30 percent are certified.

Ms. Hilsabeck said the district also gives first preference to those who are highly qualified in the subjects they are expected to teach, when administrators first try to fill a position.

In Maryland’s Prince George’s County schools, about 75 percent of substitute teachers are certified or have at least a bachelor’s degree, said Randy Thornton, the director of human resources for the district.

When interviewed Sept. 5, Mr. Thornton said the district still had 110 vacancies that were being filled by substitutes. However, he added, his office was working “round the clock” to recruit teachers.

The county considers a substitute who teaches for 15 consecutive days to be long-term. Mr. Thornton could not say how many of the vacancies were in Title I schools—those receiving federal aid for disadvantaged students under that part of the NCLB law—and thus could trigger the parental-notification clause.

What’s ‘Highly Qualified’?

A big area of concern for teacher advocates is that many substitutes—and particularly the least qualified—end up in high-poverty schools.

“In well-heeled communities, you will find substitute teachers who are certified, who want to be a teacher there, and will substitute for several years to get into the good graces of administrators,” said Mr. Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality. “In rural and high-needs urban communities, what you find are people off the street, people who are willing to work for $10 an hour.”

What further complicates the situation of finding and setting a bar for substitute teachers is the concern some observers, such as Mr. Berry, feel over the current definition of “highly qualified” under the NCLB law, which, they believe, is inadequate.

Under current guidelines, a highly qualified teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, hold full state certification, and demonstrate competence in the subject he or she teaches.

“I refuse the claim that highly qualified teachers are really highly qualified,” Mr. Berry said. “It is nothing more than a minimal qualification.

“Substitute teachers ought to be teachers who know the curriculum, know the program, know the kids,” he added.

Yet others say that rather than focus on the qualifications for substitutes, they would prefer it if the law ensured that fewer students were taught by substitutes.

“Districts need to look at teacher absences … and focus on it,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that promotes educational improvement for poor and minority children. “They ought to be looking at their absence policy, … attrition rates, and see what they can do to stabilize staff,” he added.

Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy said lawmakers need to approach the issue of improving substitute-teacher quality in a “commonsensical” manner.

“There should be at least an investigation of this issue as a problem,” he said. “We need to look at how many substitute teachers are there, how long they stay in schools, and are they on the way to fulfilling requirements for certification.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as Policies Allow Districts to Cut Corners With Substitutes

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