Is There a Substitute Teacher Shortage Crisis?

Teacher Absences & Subs

Across the country, districts nationwide have noticed an issue this school year: a substitute teacher shortage.

In fact, in a recent survey by STEDI.orgnearly 50% of respondents said they are facing a somewhat or very severe shortage of substitutes.

Many theories are circulating on why fill rates and sub shortages are a bigger issue this year: districts limiting substitute hours for the Affordable Care Act, an improving economy and more competitive job market, increased teacher absenteeism and more.

So what’s the real reason? We dug into some data from the absence and substitute management tools (formerly Aesop) in Frontline Absence & Time as well as some other sources, to get to the bottom of the issue and provide real solutions for school districts.

What Is Not Causing a Substitute Teacher Shortage

1. Limiting Substitute Hours for the Affordable Care Act

Many districts are concerned about the Affordable Care Act — and the potential that substitute teachers, who’ve never previously qualified for benefits, could become eligible under the new law. Out of concern for the financial impact this could have, some districts have already taken the precaution to limit the number of hours substitutes can work. The most common is limiting substitutes to no more than 30 hours per week.

Not long after, the media, districts and teachers alike began to wonder if fill rates for teacher absences would take a hit from this precaution. Surprisingly, the data from Frontline Absence & Time shows that, on average, districts limiting substitute hours per week have identical fill rates to those not limiting hours.

Most likely, districts in reality have very few substitutes who are working more than 30 hours a week, and so the impact of limiting hours affects few substitutes. Of course, the full impact of the law has yet to be seen and the number above is based on an average. Districts should monitor their own data carefully and make informed decisions about whether or not to limit hours for substitutes.

2. Too Many “Inactive” Substitutes

Another theory is that districts with a higher percentage of inactive substitutes in their sub pool experience lower fill rates. It turns out that, at least for districts using a web-based sub-calling system, this is not a major factor.

Our data shows that even districts with a large percentage of inactive subs (those working less than 1 time per month) have similar fill rates to those with a lower percentage of inactive subs. Most likely, this result is because the vast majority of absences are filled by proactive substitutes accepting jobs online or the district assigning a specific sub.

Also, the result may be vastly different in a district manually calling substitutes, where the sub-caller is wasting time every time he or she contacts a substitute who doesn’t want to work.

Either way, best practices do still recommend taking the time at least annually to remove substitutes from the list who no longer intend to work. The effect on fill rates will vary for each district, and a cleaner sub pool of active subs will allow you to accurately report on your sub to teacher ratio and other fill rate-related data.

What Is Contributing to a Substitute Teacher Shortage 

1. Economic Improvement and a Lower Unemployment Rate

While a lower unemployment rate is good news for the nation, this improvement has had some impact on the number of substitutes available for school districts.

Our data as well as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that as the unemployment rate is steadily decreasing, meaning more people are working, the substitute-to-teacher ratio is also decreasing — meaning fewer substitutes are available for more teachers.

Since 2011, the unemployment rate has gone down from 8.4% to the current 7.2%. Consequently, the sub-to-teacher ratio has decreased from 1 sub for every 3.22 teachers in 2011 to 1 sub for every 5.98 teachers so far this school year.

The substitute to teacher ratio has a direct impact on fill rates. Data shows that the average fill rates stay at 90% when districts have a 1:3 ratio, but fill rates slip to an 89% average when the sub to teacher ratio approaches 1:6.

Chart: Fill Rate and Unemployment Rate Decline

As the economy improves, more potential substitutes including new college graduates are taking full-time teaching jobs or work in other fields, creating a challenge for districts.

2. Increased Teacher Absenteeism

While also not a new issue, districts should not overlook the effect of increased teacher absenteeism on the shortage of substitute teachers.

Teacher absenteeism rates have definitely increased often due to increased professional development at the district. With Common Core training and many other new requirements, professional development days are unavoidable. For example, Newport-Mesa Unified School District said they were 30 substitutes short one week when teachers were out for training in addition to 4th-6th grade teachers out preparing report cards.

In some cases, absenteeism is also up due to teachers using up days that they will otherwise lose. You can read more about the absenteeism issue here.

What Your District Can Do About Substitute Teacher Shortage

1. Understand Your District’s Data

The #1 thing districts should do is collect and analyze their own data to drive decisions. Districts can be looking at information like:

Substitute Pool

— The ratio of total substitutes to teachers (1 to 5 or less is best) 
The  ratio of actively working substitutes to teachers*

*Again, having a clean sub pool (removing non-active subs) will give you a more accurate sub to teacher ratio.

Fill Rates

— Best and worst fill rates by location
— Best and worst fill rates by skills required 

Teacher Absenteeism

— Highest absence days (ex: Fridays, Mondays, etc.)
— Absences by type (professional development, etc.)

Austin ISD  is a perfect example they used the real-time dashboard and reporting tools in the absence and substitute management tools (formerly Aesop) in Frontline Absence & Time to determine that they needed to double the size of their substitute pool. The online tools and resulting changes they made allowed them to hit 100% fill rates.

2. Improve the Substitute Hiring Process

For some districts, recruiting and hiring substitutes requires a huge amount of time and effort. One big potential for improvement is to integrate your absence and substitute management system with payroll.

Before they integrated their systems, the personnel at Garland ISD were spending three days every six weeks hand-keying information for new substitutes into payroll and their substitute management system. The Substitute Office Manager said substitutes often had to wait a week or more before they could start working as the office entered all their information.

Now that they integrated their systems, substitutes can begin work immediately after orientation  and the office saved hours of manual entry.

In addition, many districts are expanding the types of candidates they’re considering including approaching retired teachers, college students and student teachers, and candidates who have applied for full-time teaching positions at the district.

3. Make Substitute Teaching More Attractive

With potential substitute teachers considering other options, districts need to work to make subbing an attractive option for candidates.

Many districts are increasing substitute pay to attract more substitutes and compete for the best substitutes. Some districts are increasing pay only for harder-to-fill positions, like special education. If this is not an option, other districts are offering incentives such as free or discounted tickets to school events or even discounts in partnership with local businesses.

Enough can not be said for good communication with substitutes, as well. You can use tools like the Letter Writer in Frontline Absence & Time to communicate more frequently with all of your substitutes, whether it’s providing reminders and tips or asking for feedback.

Also, let your substitutes know about resources to make their lives offers a variety of materials to help train your substitutes, including a 90-minute orientation course.

In addition, the Jobulator computer and mobile app lets substitutes receive notifications of jobs in Frontline Absence & Time instead of having to constantly log in and search for jobs. Better yet  districts where substitutes are using Jobulator to accept jobs have a 5% higher fill rate than those without!

4. Manage District-Wide Absenteeism

Last but not least, see what measure you can take to reduce the time teachers are out of the classroom, especially for professional development.

Careful management of the district calendar and coordination with building-level administration can help avoid excessive absenteeism. Holland Public Schools in Michigan, for example, started moving their teacher training to specific in-service days and after-school sessions to minimize teacher absences.

“It’s about looking at the calendar and time differently,” the superintendent said. “I would much rather have our teachers in front of them than a guest teacher.”

In Conclusion

So the answer to the big question: Is there a substitute teacher shortage crisis?

In some districts, yes but careful tracking of data, analysis of the trends, and the tips above should help districts get back to those high fill rates.

Allison Wert

Allison (Ali) Wert is the former Content Marketing Manager of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She has nearly 10 years' experience writing about education topics, including best practices for K-12 strategic human capital management. Under her leadership, the team at Frontline was recognized as the Winner of CMA's 2017 Project of the Year and Best Content Marketing Program.