Substitute Teacher Policies? No One Else Could Cover It Quite the Same

Truth be told, I tried to find someone else to fill in and do the blogging for me today — a substitute, if you will. It’s Friday, one of the more common days for teachers to get a classroom substitute, at least according to a Harvard study cited in a new Education Week piece by June Kronholz titled “No Substitute for a Teacher.”

That’s just one of numerous interesting findings brought up in the article. More likely to take days off are teachers in traditional district schools, in larger schools, or in elementary schools; teachers of low-income students; teachers without a master’s degree; teachers with tenure; or female teachers under age 35. For each of those, I’m sure there are a variety of factors and trends to provide some broad explanations.

Kronholz lays out the problems associated with lost learning caused for students when they are under the supervision of a substitute. While many of my peers may find it fun to act up and pick on the substitute, they may not realize that over the course of their K-12 career they could spend six full months in class without a regular instructor!

To be fair, classroom teachers do have less flexibility than positions in some other fields, because so many students depend on them. What if their own child gets sick? What if they have an extremely important daytime appointment they can’t miss? Etc. Drafting a policy that is fair and flexible — one that honors students and taxpayers by deterring those who would abuse the privilege of taking extra days off while not unduly punishing those with legitimate needs — cannot be an easy task. Can it?

Collective bargaining agreements that govern large pools of teachers make the task even more difficult.

Especially when dozens of Colorado school districts create more substitute days by giving unions release time to conduct private business (including legislative lobbying) during school hours. In about half of those districts, taxpayers also cover the cost of the substitute fee. Whether the union reimburses or not, the likely result is more time for students filling out worksheets or watching movies than being engaged in active learning.

Kronholz mentions different substitute policy approaches taken at the individual charter or private school level that mitigate some potential problems. Maybe some of those ideas would work if they could be implemented at the building level rather than through the central office bureaucracy.

The new Education Next article just begins to pull back the curtain on some of the nuances in teacher absenteeism and substitute policies. While an overhaul may not be needed, it’s certainly time for a look at some commonsense steps that could curb the abuses without punishing those who have legitimate needs. Local school leaders could take away the union perks, for sure, and also look at various carrots and/or sticks to employ.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t make you fill out any worksheets?