The mythology surrounding the substitute teacher is not a pretty one: Paper airplanes, lost learning, bullying. But as schools collect more information about teacher absenteeism and its consequences, districts and schools are exploring ways to professionalize substitute teaching—or experiment with alternative ways of coping with teacher absences.
“Almost everyone appreciates at a gut level that what happens in the regular teacher’s absence is not often something to brag about. It’s kind of an underbelly, one of the darker secrets of what happens in public education,” said Raegan T. Miller, the associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington that is among several national groups and schools currently studying the issue.
While substitute teachers are largely seen as occasional pinch hitters for full-time teachers, statistics show that students spend a good chunk of their time in school with them. The Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality estimates that the average teacher misses between six and 13 days of school per year. And some research now links high rates of teacher absence to lower-than-expected achievement results for students.
That has led a growing number of educators to call for creating a more professionally prepared substitute-teaching workforce.
“We ought to be looking at professionalizing substitute teachers to make sure kids are experiencing high-quality instruction throughout their time in school,” said Linda Davin, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, which has been studying efforts around the country to professionalize, support, and better compensate substitute teachers for a forthcoming brief.
A Glimpse at the Data
The findings linking student achievement to teacher absences emerged from a 2007 paper by Mr. Miller and fellow researchers Richard J. Murnane and John B. Willet, who were all then working at Harvard University. They suggested that students whose teachers missed 10 or more days in a school year saw significantly lower test results than peers whose teachers were absent less often.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights followed up on those results by including teacher absenteeism in its 2009-10 data collection for the first time. The 2009-10 data, which were released this spring, captured the proportion of teachers who are absent more than 10 days in the 7,000 districts and 72,000 schools it surveyed (excluding approximately 600 schools whose figures were deemed to be iffy.) That analysis suggests that 37 percent of teachers were absent more than 10 days in 2009-10, though an inconsistency in the way the question was phrased means that some districts may have included absences due to professional development in their figures.
Districts are also getting more access to data about teacher absenteeism as they move to automated or computerized systems for assigning substitute teachers and monitoring attendance like Aesop, a commercial attendance-management program.
The federal data and the data from school systems have already shed some light on trends in absenteeism; in many districts, for instance, it’s been reported that schools serving disadvantaged students have higher rates of teacher absenteeism and have a harder time filling those classrooms with qualified substitutes. In Knox County, Tenn., for instance, the district has often struggled to place substitutes in its city schools, according to Kathy Sims, the executive director of human resources.
Using computerized programs means substitute teachers can even use smartphone apps to accept subbing jobs and pick up lesson plans. Ms. Sims said the technology helped her district notice which substitutes were regularly turning down assignments. But the systems also have a potential downside: Teachers are more likely to call out sick if they do not have to speak to a principal directly, said the Center for American Progress’ Mr. Miller.
But, of course, teachers are absent, “for the same reason as any other professional,” Mr. Miller said, whether due to family situations, emergencies, or professional development. They may even suffer higher-than-average rates of illness because of their high, on-the-job exposure to children’s illnesses.
Though the importance of teachers in student performance is widely agreed upon, the qualifications of the substitutes who fill their roles when teachers are absent vary widely, said Geoffrey G. Smith, the director of STEDI.org, a substitute-training institute sponsored by Utah State University. In some states, a substitute teacher need only clear a criminal-background check, while in the states of Washington and Iowa, substitutes need to be certified teachers. Some states, including Louisiana and Montana, allow districts to set their own requirements. The NEA’s Ms. Davin said that uniformly higher standards for becoming a substitute teacher would help ensure that students are taught by qualified professionals.
The NEA also points to instances where better compensation, professional development, and administrative support for substitute teachers have improved the substitute pool, and calls for expanding these practices in an upcoming brief. In Montgomery County, Md., substitutes who cover at least 45 days over the course of a semester receive a bonus. In Oregon, the legislature set the minimum salary for substitutes at 85 percent of that of an average beginning teacher, and substitutes cannot be paid for less than a half day. In other districts, substitute teachers with teaching degrees are paid more than noncertified substitutes.
In a weak economy, many districts do not have to scramble to find substitutes, said Mr. Smith. They may draw from a pool of retired teachers or people lookingfor temporary employment. But while Mr. Smith said that “training is the most important thing a sub can receive prior to entering,” many districts do not train their substitutes.
According to the NCTQ, only 24 percent of districts in a sample of more than 100 surveyed by the organization require substitutes to have a teaching or substitute-teaching certificate. Most districts do not require evaluation of substitutes.
Until 2010-11, substitute teachers in Knox County only had to complete paperwork and meet with a representative from human resources, said Ms. Sims. The district began requiring more-extensive training in 2010-11 that requires all potential substitutes who lack education degrees to pass an assessment. The training mandate caused the number of substitutes in the city’s pool to decrease by about half, as potential subs had to pay for their training, but Ms. Sims said that fill rates actually increased, and principals’ and substitutes’ job satisfaction rose that year. “We have a more qualified pool,” Ms. Sims said.
Angela M. Dicke, the coordinator for the Ohio Center for Substitute Teachers, a program that offers training to prospective substitute teachers in that state, said that such training was generally welcomed by substitutes. “Subs have told us that the pay is fine,” she said. “What they’re really wanting is recognition and to know that what they’re doing is the right thing to do.”
She said her organization’s training program, required by some Ohio districts, saw “physicians, career-changers, and a lot of realtors” come through en route to a career in substitute teaching, and that the training often helped weed out those who discovered that substitute-teaching would not be a good fit. “They need to learn about liability, about classroom management, about policies and procedures,” she said. “It requires a different set of skills than being a regular classroom teacher.” Substitute-teaching is a “lonely profession,” said Ms. Dicke. “It’s kind of an overlooked partner in education. So our goal here is to really professionalize the aspect of being a substitute teacher. It isn’t a babysitting job—you need a toolkit.”
Some schools seek to avoid the revolving cast of substitute teachers altogether by having in-building substitutes or, in some cases, not employing substitutes at all.
Invictus Prep and Harlem Village Academy in New York City and KIPP Will Academy in the District of Columbia are among the contingent of charters that do not employ substitute teachers at all, instead relying on teachers to cover for one another during prep periods.
For charter schools with specific school cultures, that may make sense, said Jonathan Travers, a director at Education Resource Strategies, a Boston-based nonprofit working with urban schools. “The more specific and strong the school culture is, the greater the premium there’s going to be on managing who’s in the building as tightly as can be,” he said.
Prospect Hill Academy, a charter school in Cambridge, Mass., employs a different strategy. Teachers are expected to cover one another’s classes, but the school also employs three full-time substitutes who are familiar with the school’s culture. “This is something that might not have made it through a collective bargaining agreement, but most teachers understand it philosophically,” said the head of school, Jed F. Lippard.
Though employing full-time substitutes is more expensive for the school, having familiar adults in the classroom—whether a full-time substitute or full-time teacher covering a class—"preserves high expectations for kids in terms of engagement and behavior andit creates a culture of accountability for colleagues. When you know that your colleague’s responsible for covering classes, it makes teachers more accountable for thoughtful, rigorous lesson planning,” said Mr. Lippard.
Charter schools aren’t the only schools looking to avoid putting students with adults they don’t know. In Knox County, Ms. Sims said her office had recently proposed a system that would establish several permanent substitutes who would be tied to schools within a single region. “It would cost more—but the benefits would be that we’d have trained, high-quality substitutes that know the schools in the region, and the students get to know them, the principals get to know them.”
Individual school culture largely determines the rates of teacher absenteeism and the success or failure of substitute teachers, said ERS’ Mr. Travers. Schools can combat the learning loss by focusing on improving other aspects of school culture, he said. “Maximizing teacher morale and attendance and structuring teacher roles and teacher teams well is probably a better means to the same end” of combating the learning loss that takes place when teachers are out, Mr. Travers said. “It has so many other positive externalities.”
But what happens when teachers are absent is important, Mr. Miller said. “We have this pretty well-understood idea now that teachers really matter—teachers are the most important school-based driver of student achievement,” he said.
That means professionalizing substitute-teaching matters, too, said the NEA’s Ms. Davin. “We need to make sure kids are experiencing high-quality teaching throughout their education experience, even when the regular teacher is out.”
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Educators Take Another Look at Substitutes