What Happens to Student Learning When Teachers Are Absent?

What Happens to Student Learning When Teachers Are Absent?


From the Marshall Memo #446

“The mythology surrounding the substitute teacher is not a pretty one,” says reporter Jaclyn Zubrzycki in this Education Week article: “Paper airplanes, lost learning, bullying.” The average teacher is out 10 days a year, and one study found that 37 percent of teachers are absent more than 10 days a year. That’s a lot of time for students to spend with unfamiliar, low-status teachers. Two studies have linked lower student achievement to low teacher attendance, and data show that absenteeism is higher in economically disadvantaged schools, which also have more difficulty getting qualified substitutes.

“Almost everyone appreciates at a gut level that what happens in the regular teacher’s absence is not often something to brag about,” says Raegan Miller of the Center for American Progress. “It’s kind of an underbelly, one of the darker secrets of what happens in public education.” Teacher morale is one component of teacher attendance levels, but even schools with the best working conditions and collegiality have to deal with absences – people get sick, have family demands and crises, and attend professional development outside their schools. There are three approaches to maintaining the quality of instruction when the regular teacher is out:

Professionalize substitute teaching – Only 15 states currently require substitutes to have college degrees, only 13 percent of districts evaluate subs, very few provide training, and daily pay ranges from $50 to $234. Requiring certification, providing training and evaluation, and paying a decent wage all help improve the pool and improve classroom performance.

Building substitutes – Some schools have full-time teachers who fill in for absent teachers. They are more expensive than per-diem subs, but have the advantage of becoming familiar with students and school routines. “When you know that your colleague’s responsible for covering classes, it makes teachers more accountable for thoughtful, rigorous lesson planning,” says Jed Lippard, principal at Prospect Hill Academy in Cambridge, Mass., which has three building subs and, when absences exceed their capacity, enlists regular teachers.

Internal coverage – A few schools fill absences internally, with teachers using their prep periods to cover absent colleagues’ classrooms. “The more specific and strong the school culture is, the greater the premium there’s going to be on managing who’s in the building as tightly as can be,” says Jonathan Travers of Education Resource Strategies in Boston. 

“Educators Take Another Look at Substitutes” by Jaclyn Zubrzycki in Education Week, July 18, 2012 (Vol. 31, #36, p. 1, 16), http://bit.ly/PcSsFj 


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