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The substitute teacher shortage: Research reveals why it warrants more news coverage

We highlight academic research to help journalists explain why school districts' responses to the national substitute teacher shortage could have long-term consequences for students — especially kids in low-income communities.

Substitute teacher shortage student achievement research
(Image generated by artificial intelligence system DALL.E 2 with directions from Carmen Nobel.)

Teacher absenteeism has surged in U.S. public schools since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and, with it, demand for substitute teachers.

Last school year, almost 3 out of 4 public schools reported higher rates of chronic teacher absenteeism, or teachers missing 10 or more days of work, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At the same time, 77% of schools reported having more difficulty finding substitutes to fill in while regular teachers were out, with 61% saying it was “much more difficult” than it had been before COVID-19 began to spread.

“Administrators describe ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ with ‘less than ideal’ substitute teachers,” researchers from Concordia and Indiana universities who are studying staffing challenges write in an April 2022 essay for The Conversation. “In a pinch, schools place multiple classes together with a single adult.”

In 2022, staffing shortages were so severe, some public schools closed temporarily and the governor of New Mexico called on National Guard troops to help cover classrooms. Many school districts are asking parents and community leaders to fill in. Another strategy: promoting substitute teaching as a way college students can use their spring break to make extra cash.

As schools clamor to find enough people to oversee classrooms during teacher absences, they are also playing “COVID catchup.” Many U.S. students are behind in their studies because of pandemic-related disruptions such as school closings and mental health issues.

The substitute shortage has forced a national spotlight on the critical role these employees play in the day-to-day functioning of American public schools. It has prompted lively debates about how substitutes should be recruited and compensated and whether public schools should hire those without a certain number of hours of training or college credit.

Changing substitute teacher requirements

While the qualifications to become a sub differ across states, public schools often do not require subs to have a college degree or training, including classroom management training. Many states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida, allow adults with only a high school diploma to substitute teach, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Contract Database.

The vast majority of substitutes work day to day, which gives them the flexibility to decide when, where and how often they work. A small proportion are long-term subs, who fill in for teachers who have taken extended leaves or left their positions permanently during the academic year.

Pay varies widely. For example, substitute pay ranges from $60 to $68 a day in Hinds County, Mississippi, depending on factors such as education and experience. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, day-to-day substitutes make $199.27 a day.

The national average for day-to-day subs, including those working at private schools, was $18.47 an hour as of May 2021, an analysis from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. Data on average pay for long-term subs was not immediately available. However, they tend to make slightly more money and, sometimes, qualify for benefits such as health insurance.

In December 2021, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a letter to school district officials suggesting they use some of their federal COVID-19 relief funding to recruit and train substitutes. The federal government provided $122 billion in emergency relief to elementary, middle and high schools to “to keep schools safely open, tackle learning loss and mental health.”

Since then, many school districts have raised substitute pay or considered it. To expand their pool of applicants, districts in several states have lowered their educational requirements, economist Patricia Saenz-Armstrong notes in a January 2022 report for the National Council on Teacher Quality.

She points to Douglas County, Colorado and Montgomery County, Maryland as examples.

“While both districts previously required a bachelor’s degree, Douglas County now only requires a high school degree and Montgomery County an associate’s degree,” Saenz-Armstrong writes.

In California last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that waives, until July 1, 2024, a statewide requirement that adults pass a basic skills proficiency test before they can obtain an emergency, 30-day substitute teaching permit.

Why the shortage is worse at some schools

As school districts nationwide struggle to find subs, some communities seem to have been hit harder than others. When journalist Joe Hong looked at teacher absenteeism in seven urban school districts in California in January 2022, he discovered the shortage was particularly acute at schools serving high-need students.

“California schools with large numbers of high-needs students — low-income, English learners and foster youth — have always struggled to find substitute teachers, but this year’s COVID-19 omicron surge brought them to a breaking point,” he reported in CalMatters in May 2022. “The data shows that on average, the schools with the most high-needs students filled about 42% of their teacher absences with substitutes. The schools with the fewest high-needs students found subs for 63% of teacher absences.”

In Los Angeles, Hong adds, schools with the most low-income students were able to find subs for less than one-quarter of their absent teachers.

Academic researchers have found similar patterns at public schools in California, Michigan and other parts of the U.S. Although their most recent analyses are based on data collected before COVID-19, they provide helpful insights and context.

Jing Liu, an assistant professor in education policy at the University of Maryland, explained that the pandemic has likely exacerbated an already unequal distribution of substitute teachers. His study of teacher absenteeism in California, published last summer in Education Finance and Policy, offers clues as to why subs gravitate toward some schools and avoid others.

Liu warned that increasing pay will not, on its own, improve the overall supply of substitute teachers. He urged journalists to investigate the issue more closely.

“Similar to regular teaching jobs, substitute teachers care about their earnings as well as working conditions,” Liu wrote via email. “Some consistent factors that affect substitute teachers’ willingness to teach I consistently find in my study are the challenge of managing student behavior and the lack of support from school administrators and staff members.”

At many public schools, administrators saw a marked increase in student misbehavior during the 2021-22 academic year, compared with before the pandemic, a May 2022 report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows.

For example, 56% of public schools reported more classroom disruptions from student misconduct and 48% reported more acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff.

“I think trying to improve substitute teachers’ experience and provide them more tools and support to do their job is something really important but not discussed a lot,” Liu wrote

What else does the research say?

To help journalists better understand and cover this topic, we’ve summarized several academic papers and reports that examine teacher absenteeism patterns, substitute recruitment and substitute teachers’ job preferences. You’ll find those summaries below.

For additional context, we summarized two peer-reviewed studies that look at how teacher absences and mid-year departures affect student achievement.

Together, the evidence indicates:

  • School district leaders expect the demand for substitute teachers will grow over the next few years. One big reason: As Baby Boomer educators retire, they are replaced by younger educators, many of whom will start families, requiring them to sometimes take parental leave and time off to care for sick children.
  • There are significant differences in teacher absentee rates across school districts. For example, teachers in the District of Columbia missed an average of 6.9 days of school in 2016-17. In Newark, New Jersey, teachers were out an average of 16.7 days.
  • Even before COVID-19, children spent considerable time with substitutes. As kids make their way from kindergarten through their senior year of high school, they spend an estimated total of almost a whole academic year being taught by subs, on average.
  • Veteran educators miss class more often than less experienced ones. High school teachers tend to have higher absence rates than elementary school teachers.
  • In addition to student misbehavior and a lack of support from other school employees, a long commute is another reason subs don’t take jobs at certain schools. The perceived safety of the neighborhood around a school is another factor.
  • Teacher absences are most detrimental to students during the weeks leading up to end-of-year exams and on exam days.
  • When teachers leave their jobs mid-year, their students show smaller gains in math and language arts than kids whose teachers stayed the whole academic year. Teacher departures are more harmful to elementary school students than middle school students.

Keep reading for more details. We plan to update this roundup of research as new studies are released. So please check back periodically.

Understanding the substitute teacher shortage

The Substitute Teacher Gap: Recruitment and Retention Challenges in the Age of Covid-19 Teacher Absenteeism
EdWeek Research Center report, July 2020.

In late 2019 and early 2020, U.S. school districts could only hire enough substitute teachers to cover 54% of teacher absences, according to this white paper from the EdWeek Research Center, which also notes the nationwide substitute teacher shortage “is big and getting bigger.”

The EdWeek Research Center conducts research on education topics to assist journalists at Education Week, and for professional associations and private companies. Kelly Education, an education staffing company, sponsored this project.

The findings are based on an online, national survey of 2,061 school district officials, including school principals and school board members, in December 2019 and January 2020.

“On an average school day, our findings show that eight percent of the nation’s 3.2 million public school teachers are absent, leaving administrators with more than 250,000 positions to fill with substitute teachers,” the authors write.

More than 70% of the school administrators and school board members surveyed predicted the demand for substitute teachers will increase in the next several years. Meanwhile, 56% of survey respondents said their teacher absence rates are higher than they had been five years earlier.

“There’s not much administrators can do about the Number 1 reason [for teacher absences]: As Boomers have retired, they are being replaced by Millennials in their child-bearing years,” the authors write. “As a result, more teachers are taking maternity leave or missing school to care for their own sick children.”

Survey participants said they expect the COVID-19 pandemic to also boost teacher absence rates. At the same time, 56% predicted the pool of people seeking substitute jobs will shrink five years from now and 46% said they expect the quality of applicants to fall.

Most school officials think raising pay and offering classroom management training would improve substitute teaching in their communities. The median rate of pay reported by survey respondents: $97 a day. However, education budgets might not be able to accommodate those additional expenses.

“As an economic downturn looms in the response to the impact of Covid-19, more than half of district leaders surveyed in April of 2020 say they have already reduced spending,” the authors write. “More than half also expect spending to decrease in the next year.”

More Than Shortages: The Unequal Distribution of Substitute Teaching
Jing Liu, Susanna Loeb and Ying Shi. Education Finance and Policy, Spring 2022.

When researchers studied teacher absenteeism in a large, urban school district in California, they discovered that teachers were absent an average of 11.8 days each academic year. And teachers working in public schools with the highest proportion of Black and Hispanic students missed one more day of work, on average, than teachers at schools with the lowest proportion of Black and Hispanic students.

Researchers also learned that public schools with the most Black, Hispanic or low-income students had the greatest difficulty finding substitute teachers to fill in for absent teachers. The schools substitutes preferred least had 2.2 more absences not covered by substitute teachers per year, on average, compared with other schools in the district.

To examine these issues, researchers analyzed data linking teacher absences to substitute teacher hires from academic years 2011-12 through 2017-18. The dataset included 5,264 teachers, who accrued a combined 19,000 absences over that period, and 1,873 substitute teachers.

For further insights, researchers surveyed substitute teachers to ask why they preferred some schools and avoided others. They also surveyed teachers to ask what happens to their classrooms when they are absent.

A total of 530 substitutes who had worked in the district at least once during the 2017-18 school year responded to the survey. Student misbehavior was, by far, the most common reason given for avoiding certain schools.

“One substitute teacher described ‘vulgar and violent language directed at peers and at me, throwing objects around room and out window,’” researchers write. “Another said ‘None of them listened to anything I said. They were extremely loud all day.’ Others described disruptive and disrespectful students who made classroom management highly challenging.”

Researchers also surveyed teachers to ask what happens to their students when their school cannot find a sub to cover their absence. Almost 40% of the 2,131 teachers who participated said students are split up and assigned to other classrooms with permanent teachers.

Meanwhile, 35% said another teacher who has a prep period — time during the school day used for planning lessons and grading papers — covers their class.

“Overall, when a substitute does not cover an absent teacher’s classroom, another teacher most often bears the burden by taking on additional students,” researchers write. “As a result, a teacher’s noncovered absence can affect both colleagues as well as students beyond those in the absent teacher’s classroom.”

Preferences, Inequities, and Incentives in the Substitute Teacher Labor Market
Matthew A. Kraft, Megan Lane Conklin and Grace T. Falken. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, December 2022.

For years, Chicago education officials struggled to find substitute teachers to work in public schools in predominantly Black or Hispanic neighborhoods. After the school district started offering bonuses ranging from $30 to $40 a day in 2018-19, more people took substitute teaching jobs at these schools — but not nearly enough.

Even after increasing the bonus to $45 a day across 125 schools in 2019-20, school administrators could only find enough subs to cover about 40% of their teachers’ absences, on average. At other Chicago public schools, the “fill rate” for substitute teachers was twice as high.

Researchers note that the $45 bonus was too low to attract many substitutes to these parts of Chicago, where few subs lived. The bonus was equivalent to a 27% raise for day-to-day subs, whose daily pay rate was $165.

When researchers surveyed substitutes, the two most common reasons given for not wanting to work at these 125 schools were distance and the neighborhood in which they were located.

“The actual and perceived safety of a school’s surrounding neighborhood is also likely an important factor given the substantially higher crime rates in the areas where incentive schools are located,” the researchers write. “In Chicago, preferences for shorter commutes and certain neighborhoods are also deeply enmeshed with the legacy of racial and socioeconomic segregation.”

The researchers estimate that raising the bonus to around $80 a day would help the schools raise their substitute fill rate to match the rest of the district.

Teacher absenteeism and student achievement

The Consequences of Leaving School Early: The Effects of Within-Year and End-of-Year Teacher Turnover
Gary T. Henry and Christopher Redding. Education Finance and Policy, Spring 2020.

When teachers in North Carolina left their jobs during the school year, their students showed smaller gains in math and language arts compared with kids whose teachers stayed the whole year, this study finds. It also finds that teacher departures from December through April “have the most harmful effects on achievement, although these vary somewhat by level of schooling and subject.”

To better understand the link between teacher turnover and student performance, researchers examined data linking students in grades 4 to 8 statewide with their teachers and test scores from academic years 2008-09 to 2013-14. The researchers explain their results using standard deviations, rather than differences in test scores.

They learned that student achievement fell for students whose teachers left during the school year. However, teacher departures were more harmful to elementary school students than middle school students. Across grade levels, “moderately performing” students — those whose academic performance is about average — were impacted most while “lower performing” students were least affected, the researchers conclude.

“It is possible that moderately performing students are more dependent on the relationship they developed with their teacher and therefore are more affected by their teacher’s departure,” they write. “On the other hand, the lowest-performing students are less affected by their teacher’s departure, perhaps because they were not well served by the teacher who departed.”

The researchers note the need for more data and research on teachers who take over for those leaving during the school year. Without that information, it was difficult to “confidently distinguish the extent to which losing a teacher midyear is driven by the disruption it causes for students or his replacement.”

Worker Absence and Productivity: Evidence from Teaching
Mariesa A. Herrmann and Jonah E. Rockoff. Journal of Labor Economics, October 2012.

Teacher absences hurt student achievement most at the beginning of the school year and most substitute teachers do little to make up for missed instruction, suggests this study of teacher absenteeism and productivity in New York City.

The researchers analyzed data from New York City public schools for the academic years 1999-2000 to 2008-9 to investigate the timing, duration and reason for teachers’ absences. They also looked at how their students performed on end-of-year exams during that period.

A key takeaway: Teachers were absent an average of 10 days each school year, and those with certain characteristics tended to miss work more than others.

“Having a graduate degree is associated with fewer workdays missed, as is having few years of teaching experience,” they write. “Younger female teachers miss more days of work relative to teachers of different gender and age categories, and Black and Asian teachers miss fewer days relative to white teachers.”

The researchers discovered teacher absences were most detrimental during the weeks leading up to end-of-year exams and on exam days. They also found that substitutes did little to cushion the impact.

“Extremely little production appears to take place when a teacher is absent for a single day, despite the presence of a paid temporary substitute,” the authors write, adding that long-term subs, who fill-in for the same teacher for several days to several months, appear to be more productive.

“This pattern is likely caused by several factors: managers searching for more productive substitutes on longer job assignments, more productive workers applying for longer job assignments, or substitute workers becoming more productive on the job,” they write.

Roll Call 2020
Patricia Saenz-Armstrong. National Council on Teacher Quality report, December 2020.

This report from the National Council on Teacher Quality provides a variety of data on teacher attendance for 30 of America’s largest school districts during the academic years 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Among the main takeaways of the report:

  • In 2016-17, the District of Columbia had the highest teacher attendance rate of the 30 districts examined — 96.5%. Teachers there were absent an average of 6.9 days. Dallas public schools’ teacher attendance rate was second-best at 96.2%.
  • Teacher attendance was lowest in Newark public schools, where teachers were absent an average of 16.7 days in 2016-17. The attendance rate there was 91.2%. Next to last was the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which had a 92.3% teacher attendance rate that year.
  • Teachers working in lower-income neighborhoods were absent less often than teachers working in areas where families had higher incomes. For example, in Oklahoma City, teachers working in public schools where more than 80% of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals were absent 9.2 days in 2016-17, on average. Meanwhile, teachers working in Oklahoma City schools where fewer than 20% of kids qualified for free or reduced-price meals missed 10.4 days of school, on average.
  • Veteran educators were out of class more often than less experienced ones. In public schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, teachers with 11 to 20 years of experience missed class an average of 9.0 days, compared with 3.2 days for first-year teachers and 6.9 days for teachers with two to five years of experience.
  • Teachers working with older students tended to miss more school than those working with younger ones. For example, in the Sacramento City Unified School District, high school teachers were absent an average of 12 days in 2016-17 while teachers in elementary and middle schools were absent an average of 11.

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