NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Substitute for a Teacher

March 6, 2013

School districts around the country struggle on a day-to-day basis to find enough substitute teachers to fill in for their contract teachers who have called in for one reason or another. These substitutes do not provide the same quality education, but the deeper issue is why so many substitutes are needed, says June Kronholz at Education Next.

  • The Education Department reports that 5.3 percent of U.S. teachers are absent on any given day, but what counts as an absence varies from school to school and district to district.
  • In Camden, New Jersey, the school board said that it needed to find substitutes for 40 percent of its teachers each day, and a subsequent report by Brown University's Urban Education and Policy program verified that teachers took an average of 21 days off per school year.
  • Nationally, 36 percent of teachers are absent more than 10 days per year.

Two studies concluded that teachers in bigger schools were absent more often than in smaller schools, elementary school teachers were absent more often than high school teachers, tenured teachers took off 3.7 more days than those without tenure, female teachers under age 35 averaged 3.2 more absences than did men and teachers who have a master's degree took off less time than those who didn't.

  • Teachers claim that they are absent so often because they are exposed to an increased amount of germs, but researchers point out that teachers are frequently absent because of generous leave provisions in their contracts.
  • According to the National Council and Teacher Quality, 113 large school districts' collective bargaining agreements provide an average of 13.5 sick days and personal leave per school year.
  • A Harvard University study indicates that most days taken off are "personal illness" days but only last one or two days because most districts require a doctor's note on the third day of illness.

Substitutes are not required to have a teaching certification, teaching education classes, and in some districts, nothing more than a high school GED. Substitutes who are qualified are often required to administer busy work or babysit the class instead of utilizing their skills.

Districts that reward teachers for not taking sick days see a decreased need for substitutes while districts that cap the number of sick days that can be traded for a payout notice teachers continue to take days in a use-'em-or-lose' em situation.

Source: June Kronholz, "No Substitute for a Teacher," Education Next, Spring 2013.


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