Subs replace teachers at high-poverty schools

Students study the Holocaust in a communication class at Westinghouse Academy in Pittsburgh. Credit: Bonnie Jo Mount/ Washington Post

High-poverty schools often are staffed by a rotating cast of substitute teachers, reports Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

Mya Alford, a junior at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Academy, wants to study chemical engineering in college. But she didn’t learn much chemistry last year, she says. Her teacher quit a few weeks after school started and a substitute who “didn’t know chemistry” took over.

The year before, a permanent biology teacher wasn’t hired until December.

Urban school districts hire 1 in 6 of their teachers after the school year begins, according to Brown University professors Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay, whose research has shown a link between late hires and lower student achievement.

. . . Philadelphia still needs to hire 136 teachers, and Detroit needs 135 teachers — more than 5 percent of its teaching positions — and the city has just 90 subs, so principals or other school staffers must cover most of the remaining classes, according to a Detroit schools representative.

Teacher turnover is high in high-poverty schools.

An eight-year veteran, Sara Duckett quit her job at Ballou High in Washington, D.C.  last December when she began having anxiety attacks and chest pains.

Once she referred a student to an administrator for throwing a pencil at her, grazing her eye. Nothing happened.

16% of urban teachers are ‘chronically absent’

teacher absences share

Teachers in the nation’s 40 largest school districts came to school 94 percent of the time in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the report by the National Council on Teacher Quality. On average, the urban teachers missed about 11 school days out of 186 for all reasons, including professional development.

However, 16 percent of urban teachers were “chronically absent,” meaning they missed 18 or more days per school year. Another 28 percent missed 11 to 17 days.

The study excluded long-term absences of 11 or more days “to ensure that any teacher who had to take extended leave for illness or family problem were not part of the sample.”

Teachers were not more likely to be absent in high-poverty schools.

Indianapolis teachers missed the fewest days — six — while Cleveland teachers missed the most — 15.

Policies to suppress absenteeism, such as requiring a doctor’s note, appeared to have no effect, said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “We have learned that it is not so much district policy but expectations which lead to high attendance. Teachers who work in buildings that are led by principals with high standards are much less likely to be absent.”

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.

For the children? Nope

The new substitute-teacher policy in Darren’s district is good for laid-off teachers, who’d get first dibs on substitute assignments. But it’s bad for his high school math students, he writes.

None of the laid-off teachers are math teachers.

So if a math teacher calls in sick, he or she cannot request a math teacher (or, in my case, cannot contact an awesome retired math teacher) as a substitute.  Instead we get whatever laid off teacher is next “on the list.”  If I were to call in sick, I’d get a laid off third grade teacher–who probably isn’t capable of teaching trigonometry or statistics.  In other words, I’d get a babysitter, and my students wouldn’t get any instruction that day.

And my district and local union agreed to this.

The teachers’ union always claims “education first” and “children are our special interest,” Darren writes. The district’s job is to educate students. But they couldn’t be bothered to write in a stipulation that the first qualified teacher on the sub list would get the job.

‘Turnaround’ school hit by teacher absenteeism

Teachers at at a low-performing Rhode Island high school were fired last year, then rehired when they agreed to reforms designed to turn Central Falls High around. But teacher absenteeism is high at the “turnaround” high school, reports the Providence Journal. “More than half of the high school’s 840 students didn’t receive a grade in one or more classes for the first quarter” because they missed so much instruction, reports the Journal.

Since the school year started Sept. 1, there has not been a single day when all of the 88 teachers at Central Falls High School have shown up for work.

On that first day, two teachers called in sick and a third took a personal day.

In addition, several teachers resigned after the start of the school year.  Administrators have struggled to hire replacements and substitutes.

Bitterness remains over the mass firing of all the school’s teachers in February, jobs that were eventually won back through a compromise agreement in May. In exchange for their jobs, the teachers agreed to a list of changes administrators said were necessary to turn around the school, which has among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Some teachers resent the new requirements, which include tutoring and eating lunch with students each week, attending after-school training sessions and being observed by third-party evaluators.

Fourteen teachers were judged “unsatisfactory” by outside evaluators out of 71 who were observed.

Student absenteeism also is a problem at Central Falls High. Students and teachers complain that the school is disorderly and dangerous.

Officials blame the union contract, which gives teachers 15 paid sick days and two personal days a year: Teachers can accumulate up to 185 sick days.  Teachers with six years on the job are “entitled to 40 days of extended sick leave at full pay,” which goes up to 50 days after 15 years of service.  Six veteran teachers are out on stress-related medical leave; they’ve been replaced by long-term substitutes.

Teacher absenteeism has gotten worse each month, reports the Journal. In recent weeks, an average of 19 teachers a day out of 88 positions have been absent.

Nationwide, 5.3 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, writes Walt Gardner in his Ed Week blog. Stress pushes up the absentee rate.

LA lays off effective teachers

When Los Angeles schools lay off teachers, performance doesn’t count, reports the Los Angeles Times. Seniority is the only factor.  Schools with young staffs have been hit hard by layoffs.

At John H. Liechty Middle School opened in 2007 in Los Angeles’ impoverished Westlake neighborhood with a seasoned principal, dozens of energetic young teachers and a mission to “reinvent education” in the nation’s second-largest school district.

The students had come from some of the lowest-performing schools in the city. But by the end of the first year, their scores on standardized tests showed the most improvement in English among district middle schools and exceptional growth in math, according to a Times analysis.

. . . But when budget cuts came in the summer of 2009 — at the end of the school’s second year — more than half of the teachers were laid off. Among those dismissed were (Monique) Gascon and 16 others who ranked in the top fifth of district middle school instructors in boosting test scores, The Times’ analysis found. Many were replaced by a parade of less effective teachers, including many short-term substitutes.

By the end of the last school year, Liechty had plummeted from first to 61st — near the bottom among middle schools — in raising English scores and fallen out of the top 10 in boosting math scores.

Using value-added analysis, the Times found 190 teachers in the top 20 percent were laid off, along with  more than 400 ranked in the top 40%.  Of 16 schools that lost at least 25 percent of their teachers, 15 were in low-income areas.

Because pay is linked to experience, not to performance, districts have to lay off more junior teachers to balance the budget.  Twenty-five percent more teachers would be working, if Los Angeles Unified had based its cuts on teachers’ records in improving test scores rather than seniority, the Times reports.

Liechty’s laid-off teachers were offered jobs as long-term substitutes, but many left to teach at private schools or quit the teaching profession; two enrolled in law school.  The principal moved on to another school.

It proved difficult to replace Liechty’s teachers. The middle school was forced to hire elementary teachers whose positions had been cut to save money. They had enough seniority to avoid a layoff, but few wanted to teach low-income middle-school students. “Of those who did accept jobs at Liechty, some left in tears within days or called in sick every day,” teachers told the Times. They were replaced by short-term substitutes.