The new Education Next piece on substitute teachers by June Kronholz is terrifying. It weaves together her own son’s experiences as a substitute, the latest findings on the prevalence of teacher absences, and eye-opening research on the (lack of) standards for substitute teachers and their harmful effects on student learning. It’s well worth your time.
Kronholz’ son gives the story a personal side:
With a month-old bachelor’s degree, he taught history and Spanish, his majors; calculus and literature; 2nd and 4th grades (after his second day on the job, the district asked him to take the 2nd-grade class for the rest of the year); tennis (no, he doesn’t play); and gym to a class of severely disabled high schoolers. Once, he worked as a secretary at the alternative school; none of the four teachers assigned to the school showed up that day.
He was paid $60 a day for his efforts. And, while he may have been the exception, researchers have documented that the average substitute teacher is far less effective than the teacher they replace. In fact, Kronholz writes:
Duke researchers found that being taught by a sub for 10 days a year has a larger effect on a child’s math score than if he’d changed schools, and about half the size of the effect of poverty. Columbia researchers Mariesa Herrmann and Jonah Rockoff concluded that the effect on learning of using a substitute for even a day is greater than the effect of replacing an average teacher with a terrible one, that is, a teacher in the 10th percentile for math instruction and the 20th percentile in English instruction.
In many states, the standards for becoming a substitute teacher are incredibly lax, and many large districts—including Maryland’s Baltimore County, Florida’s Hillsborough County, Georgia’s Cobb County, and Colorado’s Jefferson County—allow substitutes to teach with only a high-school GED.
The full article explores many of the issues and possible causes and solutions for high absenteeism rates, but there are a few places where smarter policies could make this situation better:
- If we want teaching to be a profession, not just a job, we should expect teachers to need to run to the bank or to visit the doctor. If we had more flexible workdays, where teachers didn’t spend all their time in front of a chalkboard leading a class, maybe they could use built-in flexibility to accomplish small chores and wouldn’t need as many vacation days. See this new Education Sector brief or a longer report to see how some schools are using school time differently.
- We want teachers to take days off when they’re sick (And we know they are exposed to a lot of germs because they spend their lives around children), but we don’t want them to take too many days off. Some districts are experimenting with the financial incentives behind days off, but another way is through a teacher evaluation system that looks at overall performance, not just how they deliver a given lesson. Tracking absences that way may help build a culture that’s responsible and smart about when to take off and when not to.
- As the article points out, however, some districts have negotiated away four or five weeks of vacation days for teachers. Newark, NJ, for example, gives teachers 28 days paid leave, in addition to school holidays and a long summer break. That’s too many.
- Districts should rethink how they’re using substitutes in the first place. Kronholz writes about how New York City and some charter schools manage teacher absences, and these seem like promising approach. If, on a given day in a large district, a certain percentage of teachers are going to be out on leave, the district should just hire extra teachers with the expectation that they rotate around to whichever class they are needed in that day.
They could do this for broad classes of teachers so that they were using teachers trained in the subject they were being asked to teach. For example, the district could hire extra math, science, English, social studies, and elementary teachers and expect them to fill in as they were needed. They’d be substitutes, but at least they’d be trained in their field and familiar with the schools, the students, and the district’s curriculum. If they weren’t being used on a given day, they could be deployed as an extra hand in classrooms. Or, if the flu struck and a whole slew of teachers were out, the district could tap some generalist reserve pool. But they would only have to tap poorly trained substitutes if things were way outside of normal, instead of the routine practice that it is now.