A snapshot of substitute teaching in the U.S.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Illness. Family emergencies. In-service training requirements. On average, classroom teachers in the U.S. are absent for these and other reasons nearly eleven days out of a given school year. That’s between 5 and 6 percent of the school year in which coverage is needed—usually in the form of substitute teachers. The ways in which school districts handle these absences matter greatly, given observed productivity losses, lower student achievement, and discipline problems associated with substitute teaching. A new study from a trio of scholars at Brown and Syracuse Universities asks a plethora of mostly descriptive yet informative questions about this understudied area of K–12 education.

They use data from an unnamed large urban district with a diverse population of students. The district has a total of 122 K–12 schools serving roughly 53,000 students. Their data cover all teacher absences from schools in this district from 2011 through 2018, including the reason for the absence, the experience levels for both teacher and substitute, and demographic data. They also have survey data—with high response rates—from teachers asking them their views on substitute teaching in their schools and from substitutes asking them, among other things, which schools they prefer most and least to sub in and why. In total, analysts observe over 5,200 unique teachers who accrued 19,000 absences of various lengths and roughly 1,900 unique substitute teachers over the seven-year study period.

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