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Talk Data to Me: Why Substitute Engagement Matters More Than Ever This Year

Substitute Management

Students may still be out for the summer in many parts of the US, but administrators and school officials are hard at work, planning for the start of a school year for which few feel ready. Though the list of COVID-related apprehensions is long, a potentially unprecedented number of teacher absences is near the top.

How is your substitute pool looking? Long before March 2020, many districts have grappled with a shortage of substitute teachers. To make matters worse, as schools — like those in Kentucky — increase the number of days available to teachers for COVID-19 emergencies, you may worry about spreading your substitute pool too thin.

You may already be short on time, energy, and resources. But investing a little bit now on maximizing your district’s substitute engagement can go a long way.

Previously on Talk Data to Me, we discussed trends in substitute teacher engagement and its connection to absence fill rate using data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute. Here, we’ll revisit that topic with updated data. But first, a review of what you already know.

Employee-to-substitute ratio and fill rates

Substitute engagement strongly correlates with absence fill rate. The more engaged a district’s substitutes are, the fewer unfilled jobs there will be. But how do you gauge engagement? That requires letting your data talk and listening carefully to what it says about these two metrics.

A district’s employee-to-substitute ratio has a negative relationship with fill rate. The higher the ratio of employees to substitutes, the lower the fill rate tends to be — so it’s more difficult to fill absences for districts with much larger numbers of employees than substitutes. Makes sense, right?

Data from the 2018-2019 school year, shown in the chart below, illustrates this connection.

The percentage of non-working substitutes also has a negative relationship with fill rate. Data from over 5,000 districts nationwide over three consecutive years revealed decreasing fill rates, increasing percentages of non-working substitutes, and decreasing numbers of days that substitutes worked each year.

Finally, the most recent data from the 2019-2020 school year once again confirms the connection between non-working substitute percentage and fill rate.

Here is where the connection between fill rate and non-working substitute percentage becomes strikingly clear. As the chart above shows, in districts with an average monthly non-working substitute percentage of 76%, only about half of all teacher absences were filled. Yet in districts where the average monthly non-working substitute percentage was just 10% lower, nearly all absences were filled. This shows that even a slight increase in substitute engagement can have a big impact on fill rate.

How do you boost substitute engagement?

The connection between an engaged substitute teacher pool and a high fill rate is clear. Keeping up your fill rate requires engaging your substitute teachers and getting them to accept at least one job per month. The question is, how do you foster, maintain, and increase substitute teacher engagement to make sure these jobs get filled?

There are several action steps to take:

  • Know the data. The metrics discussed above, and many others, are available through the Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s National Employee Absence & Substitute Data Report. In addition, if you use Frontline Absence & Time, you can access interactive, in-product tools to track your district’s data and compare it to national, state, and like-district benchmarks.
  • Use the resources. Check out these resources from Frontline Education on why substitutes work in your district (or not) and changing perceptions of substitute teaching.
  • Make sure you have the right tools. Making it easy for substitutes to find and accept jobs is vital. That means catering to communication preferences. Data from a recent survey of substitutes tells us that when it comes to receiving absence notifications, substitutes prefer to receive notifications through a mobile app rather than text message, phone call, or internet browser by a ratio of 4:1. Better yet, a seamless mobile experience makes it quicker and easier for teachers to enter absences and alert substitutes about jobs — and data shows that the sooner an absence is recorded in the system, the more likely it is to be filled by a substitute.

Whatever the coming year may hold for your schools, preparing now with data, resources, and tools will help as you work to engage substitutes and fill any vacancies that arise.

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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.