A new report lays out the specifics behind a widely-acknowledged problem in Michigan school districts—they can’t find enough substitute teachers, and the problem is only getting worse.
The report, from Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, details just how bad and widespread the substitute shortage really is, with around two-thirds of 177 school districts reporting they have trouble finding enough subs on a regular basis. 64% reported that multiple sub positions go unfilled every week.
The problem is very much a statewide one, says lead researcher Nathan Burroughs, though urban and high-poverty districts report the most trouble finding enough subs. And nearly all respondents said the issue has worsened over the past several years, with no apparent end in sight. “It appears to be a very broad-based problem,” he says.
Burroughs says the demand for subs due to teacher absences has increased slightly. But the more pressing problem is the supply pool. Historically, districts have relied heavily on retired teachers and new or in-training teachers without full time jobs to fill in as subs. But “both of those supplies have apparently dried up in a lot of cases,” Burroughs says.
Current low unemployment is a contributing factor, because people who might otherwise consider substitute teaching have other, better-paying job options to choose from. But educators surveyed also cited other factors—including declining enrollment in teacher training programs that districts have traditionally drawn subs from, reflecting what they perceive as declining status for educators as a whole.
“There does appear to be a real strong structural component as well,” Burroughs says. “The issue’s not just going to go away.”
Meanwhile, schools are forced to make some undesirable choices to fill the gap. They may combine classrooms when a sub isn’t available, driving up class sizes. Other teachers may give up their prep hour to fill in, or administrators and other staff may do so. Whatever the stopgap fix, Burroughs says there are real impacts on schools.
“It can come at an opportunity cost for districts,” Burroughs says. “Administrators aren’t doing the jobs they’re supposed to be doing—being school leaders, being instructional leaders—they’re in the classroom. Or you have an intervention for at-risk kids, or struggling kids, and you suddenly don’t have an interventionist to help them anymore. And that can have very profound consequences.”
The Michigan Legislature did pass two measures meant to ease the shortage in 2018: one that lowered the minimum educational qualifications for substitute teachers, and another that extended a law allowing retired teachers to work as subs without impacting their retirement benefits. However, that measure only applies to subs who work directly for school districts; the vast majority of Michigan districts use a third-party contractor to find subs, and they can’t employ retired teachers.
The report recommends that the state change the public employment retiree law to make it easier for retired teachers to work as substitutes. It also suggests further data collection and analysis on the problem, and supporting district partnerships with teacher and para-professional training programs.