Michelle Rhee, Chris Christie, and others have recently made great strides reforming education, but the movement has overlooked a problem with substitute teaching. During their K–12 education, public-school students in the U.S. spend about two-thirds of a year with substitute teachers. Given that many subs lack the proper training to teach effectively, students simply lose much of this time. The fix? Cut teacher absenteeism and increase the number of qualified subs.
About 5.2 percent of teachers miss any given school day, many more than in our peer countries. In Australia and Great Britain, for example, the figure is near 3 percent. The rate is also much lower among other professional employees in the U.S., around 1.7 percent. Teachers most often miss Mondays, Fridays, and the days surrounding holidays — a pattern that suggests illness is not the main cause for their absences. Indeed, more than one-fourth of the teachers in an Arizona school district recently missed the same day following spring break.
Teachers’ contracts permit most of the absences, despite the fact that teachers average only 180 work days. Last year in Camden, N.J., for example, teachers were granted, with full pay, 13 sick days, two personal days, two days for career development, and 16 days that were essentially discretionary.
Even when teachers exceed their allotted absences, their contracts shield them from dismissal. To fire ineffective teachers, including those with excessive absences, administrators must spend considerable sums following numerous procedures that can drag on for years, such as mandatory arbitration.
Consider New York City’s failed attempt to discharge subpar teachers. In two years, only three teachers were let go, though hundreds were charged with incompetence or misconduct. Dismissing one of these teachers cost taxpayers nearly $380,000 over three years — the average time it takes to conclude such disputes. Once charged, teachers cease teaching, but still receive full pay (a practice that costs NYC $30 million annually) and accrue pensions until the charges are resolved. Teachers retain the benefits they earn while on probation even if they are ultimately terminated.
Reducing teacher absenteeism requires reforming their contracts.
First, teachers’ pay should reflect, among other things, their attendance records. Teachers could receive reduced pay for each day missed beyond a particular threshold. Alternatively, teachers could receive a bonus for each excused absence they do not use. The funds would come from the $4 billion otherwise spent annually to hire subs.
Second, dismissing teachers for absenteeism must be made easier, particularly because the grounds for termination are objective and easily measured.
To the extent teachers’ unions oppose such changes, creative solutions are needed. For instance, principals can rank teachers by their absences and post the lists in faculty lounges.
But even with proper incentives, teachers will have legitimate absences. Students will thus require competent subs. Presently, however, 77 percent of U.S. school districts offer subs no training. This failure to train is outrageous given that in 28 states, subs may be hired even if they have only a GED.
The pool of qualified subs must be increased.
First, subs should be required to pass competency tests in the subjects they will teach. When I subbed, I was often placed in English as a Second Language classes. But I speak little Spanish.
Second, before leading their own classes, subs should receive proper training, including by observing a current teacher and instructing classes with an experienced teacher present. My first day subbing was frightening because I was untrained and no one checked on me that day (or any other day).
Third, current teachers should stand in for absent colleagues. In addition to lunch, many teachers have a free class period each day, largely to prepare for upcoming classes. But since most teachers recycle previous lesson plans, prep periods are not absolutely necessary. This approach may also reduce teacher absenteeism, because teachers will not want to burden colleagues with subbing duty.
Fourth, good teachers laid off solely due to lack of seniority can be hired as subs, and used instead of less-qualified subs. To make up for their lower pay, these new subs could accrue seniority while subbing, resulting in higher income and greater job security if they are later re-hired as teachers.
Immediate corrective action is necessary. Last fall, more than half of the students at a Rhode Island high school plagued by teacher absenteeism received no grade in at least one subject. Administrators concluded that the students had received insufficient instruction to warrant a grade, although subs had run the classrooms. The practice of untrained subs babysitting, rather than teaching, students must end.
— Paul J. Leaf was a substitute teacher in the Phoenix Union High School District. He is now an attorney in Los Angeles, and has worked on education-related pro bono matters.