Substitute teachers: A substandard approach to solving the teacher absentee problem

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Robert Harris

In the U.S., the substitute teacher industry is big business, with approximately $3.5 billion expended annually. Office-temp agencies, advertising agencies, software developers, recruiters, educational training providers, and others (including but not limited to the substitute teachers themselves) continue to cash-in on the substitute teaching labor market with great economic success while, on the other hand, school districts continue to fail at providing students with the academic supports they need when their regular teachers are absent from school.

Back in the day, when a teacher called-in sick, a school principal hired a well-regarded adult from within the community to fill-in for the day. Since dedicated teachers rarely missed a day of school, paying a member of the community (perhaps a retired teacher) to supervise a classroom of students for one day made perfect sense.

Today, after successful lobbying by teachers’ unions, educators now have expanded sick, personal, and other leave provisions in their collective bargaining agreements. Unfortunately, some teachers view these contractual benefits as entitlements rather than as leaves for necessity, and they have little compunction about taking advantage of them quite liberally, regardless of the actual nature of their absence from school. As it is a well-established union doctrine to encourage union members to utilize increased benefits achieved through collective bargaining rather than lose them, there is anecdotal evidence to support that negotiated increases in contractual leave provisions have resulted in a greater number of teacher absences.

Given the short supply of substitute teachers across the U.S., most school districts have adopted the “do no harm” standard when finding subs and assessing their job performance. Until such time as a school principal or a regular classroom teacher receives a complaint about a substitute teacher from a student or parent, the substitute’s work and on-the-job conduct are substantially unmonitored, misconduct goes largely undetected, and learning outcomes for student are completely irrelevant. In other words, a day with substitute teacher usually results in a day of lost instruction. However, as long as there is no harm, there is no foul, and the substitute teacher continues to be called back for yet another assignment on the following day.

Above and beyond the daily rate of compensation a substitute teacher receives (on average between $75 and $100 per day or higher), today, due to federal and state protections, substitute teachers are also eligible to receive other benefits as part of their total compensation packages. For example, notwithstanding the fact that they are part-time per-diem workers, substitute teachers, should they meet the monthly threshold for hours worked, are now eligible for healthcare benefits from districts under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA has placed a new financial burden on the budgets of those school districts with high levels of teacher absences requiring a large pool of daily substitute teachers. In many states, substitute teachers may also qualify for unemployment benefits, which drives up districts’ unemployment insurance rates. As ludicrous as this sounds, in some states substitute teachers actually file for and receive unemployment compensation even though they refuse to take, or make themselves unavailable for, substitute assignments. This loophole in the unemployment system should be closed immediately. Lastly, in large school districts that are hard-pressed to find per diem substitute teachers, they often hire office temp agencies to recruit, screen, and train their substitute teachers. In return, in some cases, these agencies receive up to a 35 percent premium in addition to the compensation the daily substitute receives.

There are at least four issues with our current approach to using substitutes to solve the teacher absenteeism problem: (1) unsustainable labor costs; (2) the supply-demand imbalance created by the increased number of teacher absences and decreased number of individuals willing to work as substitute teachers; (3) the overall inefficiency of the current substitute teacher model; and (4) the ubiquity of low-cost online technology solutions that can provide students with highly engaging lessons and continuity of daily instruction. Educational leaders and policymakers should seize this moment and view it as opportunity to implement instructionally sound and fiscally responsible alternatives to our current and antiquated model for the delivery of substitute teacher services, in which schools continue to hire woefully under-qualified substitute teachers. Instead, and as usual, educational leaders rely upon maintaining the status quo, thinking that, by increasing their recruiting efforts and by raising daily pay rates for substitute teachers, they can attract new and more highly qualified applicants to the substitute teacher workforce to improve the situation. This thinking is fundamentally flawed.

Since, in most states, the school year is only 180 days long, educational leaders and school policymakers can ill-afford to turn a blind-eye to the problem.

In a follow up article, I will share some new and promising practices that have been shown to be successful in improving the learning experience and outcomes for students when their regular teachers, for whatever reasons, are absent from school.

Robert (Bob) Harris, M.M. Ed., has worked in K–12 education for thirty-seven years, including ten years as the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in the Lexington Public Schools, and fourteen years as a local union president and regional representative. He is currently the CEO of Edudexterity, LLC, where he works with school leaders and policy-makers to find innovative solutions to problems of educational practice.