No substitute for a teacher

There’s No Substitute for a Teacher, writes June Kronholz on Education Next. Students learn less when substitutes fill in.

Duke researchers Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor found that being taught by a sub for 10 days per year has a larger effect on a child’s math scores than if he’d changed schools, and about half the size of the difference between students from well-to-do and poor families.

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.

Some school districts — including Maryland’s Baltimore County, Florida’s Hillsborough County, Georgia’s Cobb County, and Colorado’s Jefferson County — hire subs with only a high school diploma or a GED, writes Kronholz. Her son worked as a sub right after graduating from college.

. . . most often, teachers left behind worksheets, quizzes, and videos for him to monitor, amounting to what University of Washington professor Marguerite Roza calls “a lost day for most kids, regardless of the qualifications of the sub.” Indeed, many schools are looking for someone just to keep order rather than to teach differential equations.

“A lot of times, principals are just praying for basic safety,” said Raegen T. Miller, who has studied teacher absenteeism as associate director of education research at the Center for American Progress and as part of a Harvard University team.

Some 5.3 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, according to Education Department figures, but reporting is haphazard, writes Kronholz.  Eight to 10 percent of teachers are out on any given day, according to surveys by Geoffrey Smith, who founded the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State.

Schools that are large, urban and/or serve low-income students rely heavily on substitutes to fill in for missing teachers. Camden, New Jersey needs subs for up to 40 percent of its teachers each day, the district told the local newspaper. Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island were absent an average of 21 days each per school year in 2011, according to a report by Brown researchers.

In well-run schools, students show up for class and teachers do too.  But low-performing schools get stuck in a vicious cycle: Students cut class: frustrated teachers call in sick; substitutes hand out worksheets; students skip more classes.

About Joanne


  1. It’s not in the least surprising that chaotic schools in unsafe communities have problems hiring and retaining decent teachers or have to over-rely on subs of questionable quality. Those teachers and subs who are wanted by good schools (meaning those attended by cooperative, bright and motivated students) in safe, attractive communities aren’t likely to be suddenly overcome by a desire to teach or substitute in Baltimore County. The safety and behavioral issues are a necessary precondition for every good educational outcome.

  2. mike in Texas says:

    The next thing you’ll see from the “reformers” will be trying to eliminate teacher sick days.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I would have expected you to treat it as *good* news that teachers cannot be replaced by random substitutes …

      • mike in Texas says:

        Ah but you see Mark, I know how this story plays out. In fact, Joanne’s post has offered a glimpse into the future. Notice the story makes no mention of WHY the teachers are absent. There’s no mention of professional development or maternity leave.
        Next will be a “study” on citing how teachers are abusing leave policies, with a dig at the unions who protect those awful teachers. I predict it will come from one of the following: the Gates Foundation, The Heritage Institute, The Korat Task Force, Studentsfirst, or The Broad Foudation.
        Next will come the cry for something to be done about the situation and in an incredible stroke of good fortune McGraw-Hill or Pearson will have a scripted curriculum already developed that even a substitute can read from. Sure, they will make boatloads of money but its for the kids so somehow they will be able to live with themselves.

        • Kronholz’s story does discuss why teachers are absent.

          I try to keep blog posts short. If you want more, click on the link and read it.

    • Mike doesn’t invest that much thought in his defense of the status quo. Otherwise he’d notice that the least-valued employees in the public education system are teachers.

      Then he’d have to deal with that fact.

      Far better to flail ineffectually at everyone and anyone who doesn’t toe the line drawn by those such as Mike and Caroline, etc.

      • mike in Texas says:

        Yawn, do you ever get tired of making foolish comments?

        If anyone places teachers at the bottom of the totem pole it is the “reformers” such as yourself who think they know more than teachers.

        • Oh Mike, you might want to try to accept, with some small degree of dignity, that you’re losing. I doubt you’re capable of any degree of dignity but it’s a goal towards which you should strive.

          Everywhere you turn the district system is being undermined, dismantled, eroded, criticized and circumvented. Parents who were resigned to their first and only choice in the education of their child being the zip code in which they resided are awakening to the concept of choice, of being treated like something other then the tedious excrescence that accompanies that source of funds, the child.

          Right now the novelty of educational choice is like a cave-dweller finding their way into sunlight. But soon the novelty of the experience will become the norm and parents with choices will exercise those choices to the benefit of their children. Those parents won’t go back to the choiceless existence to which you are desperate to consign them and that translates into political power.

          Political power that’s remorselessly bulldozing the district-based public education system, and all it’s hangers-on and parasites, into the land fill of history.

          • Mike in Texas says:

            Allen, you’ve been predicting the same thing for years now. Are you hoping if you keep repeating it it will become true?

          • Gee Mike, why zero in on my predictions to the exclusion of my recounting of current events?

            Oh, silly me. If you ignore my recounting of current events you can try to sell, as well as believe, the notion that my prediction isn’t the logical outcome of those current events.

            If it makes you happy I’m not at all sure when the watershed event that signals the end of the public education system will occur. The American, public education equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

            I doubt it’ll be in less then two years or more then ten but if you can come up with some plausible scenario for the continued existence of the public education system fell free to roll it out.

  3. I show up for work every day. At least once every 2 weeks, I am pulled out of the classroom for meetings (district pd and IEPs mostly). The kids get a sub when I’m in those meetings. That’s something non-teachers dont realize: most of the time, when your kid has a sub, it’s not because the teacher is home. The teacher is in some stupid meeting, and would rather be back in the classroom teaching.

  4. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    The teachers themselves are only substitutes — for the parents and relatives and close friends of the parents who might otherwise educate the child, who have the moral duty and the best opportunity to educate the child.

    Teachers work best — and children thrive — when teachers are not the primary educators of a child, but rather just a tool or resource employed by the parents — who oversee and manage their child’s education.

    But far too many parents accept the government’s assurances, and turn their child’s education over to the teachers — who by simple virtue of their natural position cannot, no matter how skilled, how well-intentioned, how brilliant or noble or tireless or saintly, completely fill the void left by a parent’s disinterest and disengagement.

    Thus, there should be no great surprise that a substitute for the substitute isn’t as good as just a substitute. If you could get the real thing, you’d use that. If you can’t get the real thing, you’ll take the next best thing.

    And if that’s not available? Why then you go to Plan C.

    There ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

  5. Teacher attrition and the increased presence of substitute teachers in the classroom often occur in urban, inner city schools. New teachers tend to be placed with low performing students with little experience in the classroom. The teachers with the most experience and credentials often prefer not to teacher this population. The questions become: who is being placed with whom and why? Shouldn’t teachers all be given students of low to high ability?

    Bridgette Jackson,
    -Author of Drive Thru Teachers: The McDonaldization of the Classroom Teacher

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “Shouldn’t teachers all be given students of low to high ability?”

      Oh my God, no. Teachers should teach the students whom they can teach best. Some teachers do better with students of high ability. Some do better with students of low ability. They should go where they do the most good.

  6. Yes, Anna, you are correct. Needless, tiresome, unproductive, boring and counter-productive meeting after meeting after meeting siphons away the teacher’s presence in the classroom, which is where he would rather be anyway. Not only are there too many stupid district tests, there are too many dumb-ass meetings so admin can justify its existence.

    • Agreed. In Montgomery county MD my kids had subs for part of the day frequently because their teachers were in meetings. I’m a teacher in a private school and I hate ever missing a day. I’m down w a cold but missing class Monday would be a setback that I don’t want for my students. We have a math teacher that has been taking a lot of leave to care for her mother and it’s obvious that the classes r suffering.