By Haley Jones, MASA

When a teacher needs to take a day off for personal or professional reasons, what happens to their classroom full of students?

Your own educational career will tell you that a substitute teacher will come in for the day. Students are provided with a lesson from a lesson plan provided by the permanent teacher. In Michigan, however, a teacher who is sick or an educator attending a professional development course for a day can create some issues based on the fact that school districts in the state have a dwindling pool of substitute teachers to call on.

In addition to our educator shortage, Michigan is facing a substitute teacher shortage, according to research conducted by Michigan State University (MSU) researchers and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR).

With the help of MASA survey data, researchers recently published one of the first in-depth reports on this topic – “There is No Substitute: Michigan’s Substitute Teacher Shortage.” Research was funded by the Michigan Applied Public Policy Research Grant, which funds exploratory work that has implications for public policy.

Researcher Dr. Nathan Burroughs of the Center for the Study of Curriculum Policy at MSU’s College of Education said it’s the goal of educational policy researchers to not only understand the problems facing schools, but to help come up with ways to solve them.

MASA’s efforts were pivotal in making this project a success, he said.

“We’re hoping that by providing policymakers and school leaders better information, they can use that data to craft effective solutions,” he said. “This substitute survey is just the first step in a larger project, but we feel that it’s a vital first step—we need to figure out the scope of the problem before we start exploring potential solutions. “

Researchers analyzed previously existing surveys, consulted the thin body of existing research, and brainstormed with former and current school administrators about the topics they should learn about. A survey was piloted with MASA members and revised with member feedback. The final report presents the results of a statewide survey, interviews, and focus groups.

“MASA is focused on the continuous improvement of public education in our state, and that includes how our students learn when their teacher needs to be out of the classroom,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of MASA. “With the support of MASA and many of our members, we were able to inform this research that will impact policy in this state and drive change to address an obstacle that all of our members are facing.”

Principal findings in the report include:

  • School district administrators report that the substitute shortage is very real, with the majority (64%) unable to find enough substitutes multiple times a week.
  • This shortage affects every type of school district in every region of the state.
  • The shortage has worsened over the last five years, with 86% reporting moderate or severe declines in the supply of substitutes.
  • District leaders point to changes in the state retirement law, fewer graduates of teacher preparation programs, and better alternative careers as key contributors to the shrinking supply of substitutes.
  • Recent changes to state substitute eligibility requirements (targeted to address the low supply) appears to have had little effect on the substitute shortage.

Burroughs said the public have been surprised by the findings, including the finding that the shortage is impacting every region of the state and every curriculum area. The team is already working on next steps for researching the issue, he said.

In light of the findings, MSU suggests that policymakers explore four initiatives to address the shortage: Change the public employment retiree law to make it easier for retired teachers to work as substitutes; Improve district and state collection and reporting of substitute teacher data; Support district partnerships with teacher and paraprofessional (4-year and 2-year degree); and Encourage substitute and teacher absence data sharing, analysis, and problem solving among local stakeholders.

“All of these recommendations are just that—recommendations. It will require a lot of discussion among stakeholders (researchers, district leaders, policymakers, etc.) to develop and implement the right strategies,” Burroughs said. “We hope that this policy brief helps to further that discussion.”

Some of these recommendations have been considered in the past. In 2015, Michigan legislators passed a law allowing retired teachers to return as substitute teachers in critical areas without losing benefits but required school districts to pay more than the $85-$100 per day average.

In 2018, the Legislature passed a bill that lowered college credit requirements for substitute teachers.

Burroughs said that interviews showed that district leaders thought the pool of potential subs was limited by the state retirement law, making it difficult for retired teachers to act as subs. He said revisiting that law would be an obvious first step.

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding the substitute teacher shortage is a lack of quality data, Burroughs said. To get a handle on the causes and consequences, detailed data is necessary.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the sub shortage is just a reflection of a shortage of teachers, or of teacher absenteeism, but it’s really a distinct issue, especially when we focus on short-term substitutes,” Burroughs said. “Every school district needs qualified teachers who can fill in when the regular teacher has to be out of the classroom, so we need to think carefully about how to build a career path that’s appropriate for substitutes.”

Now that the information is available to the public, researchers are beginning to build partnerships with stakeholders to begin examining the recommendations and test strategies for reducing shortages, exploring the financial and instructional consequences of subs, and better understand why people are, or are not, interested in becoming substitute teachers. MASA members are encouraged to join in on the efforts to address the shortage.

Read the full report “There’s No Substitute: Michigan’s Substitute Teacher Shortage.”