High-Poverty Schools Have Too Many Substitute Teachers


In recent years, education policymakers have targeted teacher quality improvement by using teacher evaluations that focus on student test scores to quantify teacher performance. But Emma Brown writes for The Washington Post that in many classrooms nationwide, especially in low-income schools, there are few full-time teachers.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor emerita at Stanford who now heads the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank, says it’s not whether you can evaluate the bad teachers, but it’s whether you can keep the good ones.

There are too many substitute teachers in classrooms across the country, but many say the real problem that makes high-poverty schools tough workplaces is unsupportive administrators and students’ over-the-top behavior.

One D.C. teacher, Sara Duckett, who left a low-income high school, said she spent hours in meetings that had nothing to do with handling the needs of students and that her instructional coach was too busy to help her in a meaningful way. The school environment was so chaotic that students could not learn, teachers could not teach, and administrators did not listen to teachers’ cries for help.

Federally mandated sanctions, said Maria Whitsett, a retired school head in Austin, Texas, can force schools that persistently fail to raise test scores to “reconstitute,” which can mean large numbers of teachers are asked to leave.

A teacher in Paterson, New Jersey, Naomi Gamorra, said that her school had a multitude of substitutes because it had not hired enough teachers in the first place. However, the school seemed top-heavy with high-level administrators. By the end of October, seven of her school’s 36 teaching positions were vacated, including seventh-grade math and English.

Angel Cintron, a former middle school teacher in D.C., said getting substitutes in a challenging school is difficult and results in permanent teachers having to cover for their fellow-teachers’ classes. When this happens, the teacher’s job becomes harder, and the likelihood of their leaving becomes higher.

One veteran educator, Kelly Gwaltney, at Garinger High School in Charlotte, N.C. is attempting to improve school culture. She is ensuring that enforcement of rules is evenly and equitably applied and is creating school-wide policies dealing with tardiness, dress code, and technology usage. Only two teachers have left since the beginning of the school year, compared to five during the same time last school year.

On December 4, 2014, The Washington Post reported that high-poverty schools often have a staff that is a rotating cast of substitute teachers, according to the Examiner. A Maryland Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) high school has a student population of whom 40% qualify for subsidized free or reduced-price meals, a widely agreed upon indicator of poverty.

And 76.5% of the teachers at this school have an Advanced Professional Certificate, while at a nearby high school, with less than 5% free and reduced-priced meals (FARM), 82.3% of teachers held the same certification — a possible indicator of what could be called a “teaching gap.”

A 2013 study sponsored by the US Department of Education concluded that teaching gaps are due more to teacher assignment to the district’s schools than to teacher assignment to classrooms within the schools. The researchers who wrote the study reported that:

“… unequal access to effective teaching depended more on [FARMS] students attending schools with less effective teaching than on [FARMS] students being assigned to classrooms (within schools) with less effective teaching.”

Emma Brown of The Washington Post writes that only 27 states require substitutes to have certification, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Only 61 of the 118 districts that make up the council’s database of teacher-related policies require subs to have a bachelor’s degree. Eleven require only a high school diploma or GED, and eight have no policies at all pertaining to substitute’s qualifications.

One in six urban school district teachers are hired after the school year begins, say Brown University professors Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay, whose study has revealed a link between late teacher hires and student achievement.

All schools have been required to report how frequently teachers are absent under the Obama administration. Most teachers are rarely absent, but several studies have shown that teachers in high-poverty schools are absent more often than teachers in more affluent schools.

Twenty-eight percent of teachers are absent over 10 days a year, according to federal information collected in 2012.