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Talk Data To Me: Assessing the Health of Substitute Teacher Pools by State

Recruiting & Hiring

The status of absence management within school districts throughout the pandemic has been a consistent topic on Talk Data to Me. As teacher absence rates have consistently climbed back to pre-COVID levels this school year, states have had varying success in rebuilding their substitute teacher pools and increasing the proportion of available substitutes who actively fill absences.

We pooled data from over 6,000 school districts in 38 states and compared the district-average size of their substitute pools and working substitute percentage for the fall months of 2019, 2020, and 2021. The fall of 2019 was, of course, pre-pandemic. In the fall of 2020, school districts still found themselves amid COVID-related shutdowns, quarantines, and remote learning — all of which dramatically affected absence metrics. The fall of 2021 brought a slight return to pre-COVID levels as most school districts across the country returned to full-time in person learning.

So, did absence metrics return to where they were in the fall of 2019 as well?

  • Comparing the status of absence metrics for the fall of 2021 to the fall of 2020, we can see which states have had the best COVID recovery.
  • Comparing the status of absence metrics for this fall to the fall of 2019, we can see which states are closest to pre-pandemic levels.

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The Teacher Shortage, 2021 Edition

Which states have increased their substitute teacher pools the most?

To remedy substitute teacher shortages and to fill more classrooms, this blog series has consistently shared tips for increasing the size of substitute teacher pools and strategies for engaging available substitutes with the goal of increasing their willingness to work. The size of an active pool of substitutes, of course, impacts how easily districts are able to fill absences: the more available substitutes a district has, the greater the likelihood of being able to fill any absences that occur. Many different factors can impact the size of a district’s active sub pool, including locality and the effort and focus that organizations put into attracting substitutes.


Many different factors can impact the size of a district’s active sub pool, including locality and the effort and focus that organizations put into attracting substitutes.


Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute — which, at a national level, is representative of school districts throughout the United States — shows that between 2019 and 2021, substitute teacher pools have increased in 13 states on average, while 24 states have smaller pools. In this data, substitutes included in these pools are those who have been marked as “active” by an administrator.

Note: In each of the below maps, only states with a sample of 25 or more districts for each year from 2019-2021 are included.

The following map shows which in which states districts’ active substitute pools have experienced the strongest rebounds since the fall of 2020:

 

Which states have the largest proportion of their substitute pools actively filling classrooms?

Of course, having a large roster of substitute teachers only helps if those substitutes actively help to fill vacancies in classrooms. Every state in our analysis has a smaller proportion of their available substitutes actively filling absences this fall compared to the fall of 2019, although some states are seeing a smaller drop than others.

Below, you can see how the percentage of working substitutes in the fall of 2021 compares to that from a year earlier. “But is that really an accurate representation?” you might ask, since some districts still operated virtually in fall 2020. But most districts had returned at this point to in-person learning, which is supported by a substantial rise in the number of absences seeking substitutes, and so the working substitute percentage still appears to be valid.

The causes of the state-to-state differences in these absence metrics are beyond the scope of this blog, but they highlight a vital issue: at a time when caseloads continue to rise and COVID is having an impact on both student and staff attendance, it’s increasingly important to consider how to not only grow your substitute pool, but entice them to accept jobs in your district as well.

If your substitute pool contains a large percentage of non-working substitutes, what can you do about it?

It goes without saying that labor market challenges affect schools as well as many other industries. Hospitals, airlines, and even restaurants are having staffing challenges at the moment.

Spring Grove Area School District in rural Pennsylvania has taken an innovative approach to attracting substitutes. Recognizing that every day may feel like the first day at a new job for substitutes, the HR team at Spring Grove works hard to make their district the place where substitutes in the area want to work.

To hear how they do it, how it impacts fill rates, teacher morale, and the quality of students’ education, check out this podcast.

Kevin Agnello

Kevin is a Data Analytics Engineer for Frontline Education. He is a former high school mathematics teacher and holds a Master's Degree in Educational Curriculum and Instruction, a Master's Degree in Educational Psychology, and is working on a dissertation toward a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.