In Education There Is No Substitute
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
The following is an example of a type of request I always dreaded. “We want you and two of your teachers to attend a meeting next Tuesday. But don’t worry, subs will be provided.” There was always the misperception by administrators that the big issue for teachers was being charged with leave, not about missing a day of school. Let me be clear—good teachers hate being out of the building on a school day. When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned. If I was teaching a freshman class there was an excellent chance it would be days before all the disciplinary forms could be processed. And no matter what level class I missed, preparation was a huge time sink. I once calculated that I spent at least two minutes in preparation for every one minute I would miss. And the hours of advanced organization would not change the ultimate result—my students would suffer.
While these observations are anecdotal, they have been validated by hard data in a recent study of the New York City Schools. Jonah Rockoff, the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Business in the Finance and Economics Division at Columbia Business School and doctoral student Mariesa Herrmann of Columbia University’s Department of Economics were given unprecedented access to the records of the NYC school system to study the impact of teacher absences on student performance.
The Major Findings
While anticipating a drop in classroom productivity when a teacher was absent, Rochoff was surprised at the actual amount of impact. “When a teacher takes an extended medical leave, it causes a drop in math and English test scores on par with putting a rookie teacher in the place of a teacher with four years of experience for an entire year.” Of greater concern to administrators is the fact that shorter absences are more detrimental than longer ones. Ten one-day absences over the course of a year were found to lower student scores more than when a teacher misses two consecutive weeks. The rationale was in those circumstances there is a tendency for better advanced planning and an improve quality of substitute teacher. However, the data clearly indicated that these episodes, too, were devastating on student achievement.
One of the most interesting conclusions was that it was counterproductive to create incentives for teachers to not be absent. According to Rochoff, ““Presenteeism — where I’m there but I’m not really there — is not a solution for absenteeism. Do we really want someone teaching when she is sick and not giving it her all?”
What Can a School Do?
Based on the clear evidence that teacher absences hurt student achievement there are a number of steps a school and district can take to offset these negative consequences. Before the start of the school year there should be an honest and open conversation between the staff and administration concerning the detrimental effects of teachers missing class. It must be clearly stated that the solution is not to eliminate all absences or to chastise those who miss a day for any reason good or bad. Instead, what must be established is an educational environment, which will address methods to alleviate the ill-effects that result when a teacher is out of the building. Here are some suggestions that could be implemented to reduce these problems:
Creating an environment that will attract and retain the best substitute teachers. In my former school we made a concerted effort to ensure that a substitute teacher’s experience in our building was a positive one. We would treat them with respect and not abuse them by making them cover classes other than the ones they had been assigned. We strongly encouraged our teachers to have effective and productive lesson plans and asked for direct teacher feedback on whether the substitute had been effective or not. One individual in the office was tasked with working with the subs so that she could develop a positive, personal relationship with them.
Utilize retirees, parents and the community. Teachers who have retired from your school have a wealth of classroom experience, appreciate the need for good substitutes and have time. Cultivate them especially for long-term positions. Likewise, there may be parents who are in a similar position as well as former teachers who for various reasons are not interested in a full-time job but would still like to be able to work in education.
Have “sub buddies.” Teachers in each department should pair off by teaching assignment at the beginning of the school year. The person responsible for subs would be made aware of these groups and when one is absent the buddy would be available to assist a substitute with the day’s lesson.
Develop lesson plans by teams. If there is an unexpected absence in a Chemistry class, members of that curriculum team should be able to provide additional input to make the lesson plans more effective.
Hire full-time substitutes. At the district level individuals should be hired on a full-time basis and report each day to a specified school. This approach could be cost effective. In a school with a staff of 100, the addition of three such employees would reduce the number of last minute phone calls; put subs in classrooms who know the school’s bell schedule, philosophy and student body. On those rare occasions when they are not needed, there are many tasks they could perform within the building.