WASHINGTON – A year is a long time in a child's education, the time it can take to learn cursive writing or beginning algebra. It's also how much time kids can spend with substitute teachers from kindergarten through high school — time that's all but lost for learning.
Despite tremendous pressure on schools to increase instructional time and meet performance goals, the vacuum created by teacher absenteeism has been all but ignored — even though new research suggests it can have an adverse effect in the classroom.
The problem isn't just with teachers home for a day or two with the flu. Schools' use of substitutes to plug full-time vacancies — the teachers that kids are supposed to have all year — is up dramatically.
Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter, among a handful of researchers who have closely studied the issue, says the image of spitballs flying past a daily substitute often reflects reality. "Many times substitutes don't have the plan in front of them," Clotfelter said. "They don't have all the behavioral expectations that the regular teachers have established, so it's basically a holding pattern."
Clotfelter's examination of North Carolina schools is part of emerging research suggesting that teacher absences lead to lower student test scores, even when substitutes fill in. And test scores have gained heightened importance, because the 2002 education law penalizes schools if too few students meet testing benchmarks. The goal is to get all kids reading and doing math at their grade levels by 2014.
Raegen Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, is examining the impact of teacher absences on fourth-grade test scores in a large, urban school district that he chooses not to identify. His findings show that 10 teacher absences within a year cause a significant loss in math achievement. When the regular teacher is gone for two weeks, it can set students back at least that amount of time.
"Teachers often have to re-teach material, restore order and rebuild relationships after absences," said Miller, who is conducting the research with Harvard University education professors.
The potential harm multiplies when subs are used in long-term roles in a classroom. Though long-term substitutes often have better credentials than those chosen for daily fill-ins, they are no replacement for regular, full-time teachers who have gone through the normal hiring process.
Nationwide, the number of schools reporting that they used substitutes to fill regular teaching vacancies doubled between 1994 and 2004, according to Education Department data. The latest data showed more than a fifth of public schools use subs in this way.
One factor behind the increase was an overall rise in the number of schools reporting they had full-time vacancies. That points to teacher shortages in some communities.
Also, schools are being more thorough in reporting on vacancies and on school staffing generally due to requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, Miller said.
Standards for substitutes vary widely but are typically far below those for full-time regular teachers. Some states and local districts don't require background checks, and many don't require substitutes to have attended college, let alone graduated.
And states with the fewest standards for substitutes also rely most on subs. Principals in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., are most likely to identify teacher absenteeism as a big problem, according to Education Department survey data from 2003-04, the most recent available.
Among those places, only Washington requires all substitutes to have some college. And even there, principals sometimes ignore that requirement when faced with teacher absences, according to a district review.
With math in particular, the higher the level taught by the absent teacher, the harder it is to find a substitute, said Francis Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "If the prime teacher of calculus is going to miss some time — man, are you in trouble," he said.
At Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a high school with a math and science focus, a substitute might be in a math class one day and an art or science class the next, said principal Barney Wilson.
"We're not expecting him to teach the material. We're expecting him just to follow the lesson plan that the teacher laid out," Wilson said.
Teachers at Poly, as the school is affectionately called, take that responsibility seriously. Algebra teacher James Todaro was recently injured in a car accident and needed to stay home for several days. Each day, the bandaged and bruised Todaro came to school to leave an updated lesson plan for the substitute.
That's not the case across the country, however, and substitutes themselves want improvements, said Geoffrey Smith, director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University, which provides training to substitutes and schools.
"They will be the first to say, 'I wish we had more competent lesson plans left. I wish we had better control of the students,'" Smith said.
Nationwide, teachers are generally allowed 10 or more sick or personal days a year. They also can be out of the classroom for professional development.
In his research, Miller found big differences in teacher absence rates among schools in the same district. He said the "professional culture" of a school and the relationship between teachers and administrators affect absenteeism.
Principals in schools serving low-income and minority populations are more likely to say teacher absenteeism is a problem. That's consistent with Clotfelter's research, which shows the poorest North Carolina schools average almost one extra sick day per teacher annually than the wealthiest ones.
Schools serving poor and minority students also have more trouble filling full-time teaching positions, and they are more likely to fill those jobs with substitutes.
The federal law requires that all students be taught by a highly qualified teacher. That generally means teachers are supposed to have at least a bachelor's degree in the subject they teach or that they pass a subject-matter test.
Substitutes often don't meet those standards, but the law doesn't include sanctions to keep unqualified substitutes from serving for long periods. It merely requires that, after four weeks, parents be notified that their children are being taught by a teacher without the "highly qualified" label. Some schools rotate substitutes through a classroom in under four weeks to avoid having to send those letters, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group.
Lawmakers trying to update the federal law have not addressed that loophole, although they have put a provision in draft legislation that would increase training for substitutes and for administrators who manage them.
Children's advocates say kids are being hurt.
"We need to pay a lot more attention to the prevalence of substitute teachers, along with long-term vacancies and turnover rates, especially in schools with a lot of low-income students who can least afford instability in their classrooms," said Ross Wiener, who oversees policy issues at Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for poor and minority children.