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Take Control of Your Substitute Pool in 2015

Teacher Absences & Subs

Are you still feeling the pain of the substitute shortage? You’re not alone.

The painful reality of the sub shortage

The lack of substitutes has continued to be a hot topic throughout 2014 and into this current school year. Dozens of news articles document the struggle districts have been facing since 2013 with declining fill rates and a lack of substitutes.

Fort Wayne Community Schools, for example, one of the largest districts in Indiana, said they are struggling with an 83% fill rate. “We would welcome more applicants,” Stockman said. “Every day there are positions where we need subs and they’re not getting filled.”

Another example is the Tri-Cities area in Washington, which went from 250 available substitutes last year to just 150 this year. “This year we’ve seen a big jump in fewer numbers of teachers coming out of college to apply for our openings,” said Kennewick School District’s Doug Christensen.

Why aren’t there enough substitutes?

As we covered in our article on the sub shortage last year, several factors could be contributing to the dwindling sub pool, including the economy.

Declining unemployment rate

The unemployment rate has continued to drop — from 8.4% in 2011-2012 to 6.6% last school year to the current 5.8%. This trend is good news for the nation, but perhaps not for district sub pools. This drop could indicate that more people are finding full-time jobs teaching or in another profession, leaving fewer people working as substitutes.

The Affordable Care Act

It’s worth noting that contrary to many expectations, our data continues to show that limiting substitute hours to address the Affordable Care Act does not have a direct impact on district fill rates. However, the ACA could still be impacting the sub shortage, as it is very possible that individuals are less inclined to pursue substitute teaching work knowing that their hours may be limited by the district, providing insufficient income.

The sub-to-teacher ratio

As districts find themselves with smaller sub pools, the ratio of available substitutes to teachers continues to worsen (more teachers per substitute). As the ratio worsens, fill rates decline.

We pulled new data from Aesop for the 2013-2014 school year, and the results are consistent with last year’s trends. The data shows that the best fill rates result from a 1:2 or 1:1 ratio, but as that is pretty unrealistic for districts, we recommend that districts try to maintain a 1:3 ratio.

Fill Rates & Sub to Teacher Ratio (2014-2015 School Year)

Chart of Fill Rates & Sub to Teacher Ratio (2014-2015 School Year)

However, we’ve seen that fewer districts are achieving the ratio that is needed for effective fill rates. While 66% of districts in the 2012-2013 school year were maintaining a good ratio (1 sub for every 1-3 teachers), this percentage has persistently dropped each year — just 54% so far this school year.

More districts are finding themselves in the “danger zone” with just 1 substitute available for every 4 or more teachers.

Decline in Percentage of Districts With a Good Ratio

chart of the Decline in Percentage of Districts With a Good Ratio

Take control of your fill rates

Despite the economic challenges, districts are taking some specific steps to improve their fill rates.

Clean up your sub pool

As mentioned above, we recommend a 1:3 ratio for the best fill rates. That means if you have 300 teachers (or any employees requiring a substitute), you should have approximately 100 substitutes.

But to get a clear picture of your district’s ratio (and the potential need for more subs), it’s crucial that you give your substitute pool a good “cleaning.” Most likely, you’ve got some substitutes who are no longer actively working, and that can artificially inflate your substitute count.

You will want to review your list of substitutes and determine who is still actively working in your district – for example, identify all those who have not worked at all this school year, minus new substitutes (Aesop users, you can do this with the Non-Working Substitute Report).

Percent of Non-Working Subs in the Pool

chart showing the Percent of Non-Working Subs in the Pool
Recent data from Aesop shows that 38% of all substitutes in the overall sub pool are not actively working. What does this percentage look like in your district?

Follow up with your inactive substitutes

Once you have your list of inactive substitutes, you’ll want to take some follow-up steps. Some common reasons for inactivity (and how you can help) include:

1) They don’t remember their ID or password.
Let them know what it is.

2) They are working elsewhere and no longer want to substitute teach.
Mark them as “inactive” so you stop counting on them.

3) They need training (they may be getting phone calls but have no idea what to do)
Offer a training class (on your own or using on-demand training courses) or send them some help documentation

4) Their phone number may be wrong so they are not getting calls
Fix the phone number (the poor person who has the other phone number will thank you!).

Offer incentives to substitute teachers

Many districts are taking a hard look at how attractive it is to work in their district and are making changes to attract more subs. For some, this could be an increase in pay — across the board or in special instances.

Shelby Schools in Ohio increased sub pay across the board while Knox County Schools in Tennessee increased substitute pay just for schools with high percentages of unfilled absences and for absences on Mondays and Fridays.

For others where this is not an option, it could be more creative measures. Del Mar Union School District in California has created a special pool of classified instructors, which has added more substitutes to choose from.

Other options include offering training to your substitute applicants, before they even get hired, so more people feel confident and qualified to work in your district. Substitute training courses are also available, allowing you to provide online training as part of the application process.

Districts are continuing to work to make substitute teaching a more attractive line of work, including rewarding proven and effective long-term substitutes with eventual full-time work in the district.

Encourage job notification tools

Our recent data shows that districts with substitutes using job notification tools like Jobulator actually see a significant increase in fill rates. This increase is due to substitutes getting easier access to jobs, even when they’re not at their computers, since they can get alerts for jobs on their mobile devices.

Evaluate your absenteeism rates

Finally, don’t overlook the role rising teacher absence rates have to play in the substitute shortage. We’ve covered absenteeism in another post, where you can read about the rise in absences and what you can do to evaluate and address the issue in your district.

Take control!

A lot of districts are finding new and better ways to attract substitutes. But first, you need to know your own data. Get an accurate picture of your sub situation this year — and then you can create your strategy to once again build up a sufficient sub pool.

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.