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Substitutes: A National Overview

Survey data on statewide credentialing, licensing, and training standards for substitute teachers were collected from NEA state affiliates and state education agencies in 1998-99. The information gathered from these sources is summarized below.


1. Does your state have regulations or guidelines governing the credentials necessary to substitute teach?

Yes, 73%, No, 27%

Of the 73 percent who responded "yes" to the above question, 16 percent say credentials for substitutes are the same as those for permanent teachers. In addition, the 73 percent who responded "yes" above, say that the minimum regulations governing the credentials necessary to substitute teach are ?

  • High school diploma, 16%
  • Bachelor's degree, 14%
  • Associate's degree, 3%
  • Teaching license or certificate, 2%
  • Or a combination of requirements, 46%
  • Don't know, 19%

2. Does your state have licensing requirements for substitutes?

Yes, 24%; No, 76%

Of the 24 percent who answered, "yes" to the above question, 42 percent say a "teacher's license or certification" is the requirement. Other requirements are a ?

  • Bachelor's degree, 14%
  • Fingerprinting and criminal background check, 10%
  • Basic skills test, 5%
  • Teaching experience, 5%
  • Combination of the above, 19%
  • Don't know, 5%

3. What is the status of professional development for substitute teachers in your state?

  • Not regulated, required, or provided, 80%
  • Provided at the local level, 9%
  • Provided by the state, 5%
  • Mandated by the state, 5%
  • Don't know, 1%

4. Do substitutes have collective bargaining rights in your state?

Yes, 8%, No, 67%, Don't know, 25%

5. How would you describe your state's substitute teacher situation?

  • Usually not enough substitutes available, 42%
  • Depends on the local situation, 17%
  • Usually enough substitutes available, 15%
  • Never enough substitutes available, 9%
  • Always enough substitutes available, 1%
  • Don't know, 15%

6. How does the availability of substitutes in your state compare to that in surrounding states?

  • It's the same, 42%
  • It's worse, 7%
  • It's better, 6%
  • Don't know, 45%

Regarding short- and long-term strategies used to address the shortage of substitute teachers, a variety of directions were mentioned by the state-level respondents:

  • Training opportunities
  • Increasing pay
  • Raising standards
  • Legislating remedies
  • Public relations strategies
  • Local level strategies

Source: NEA 1998-99 Study

Where Do Substitute Teachers Come From?

Substitute teachers are usually hired locally, although many state education agencies provide guidelines or hiring qualifications. However, when it is necessary to expand the pool of candidates, states often waive requirements and, thus, lower standards. The better solution, it seems, would be to provide incentives to make substitute teaching more appealing to those who do qualify. A lack of substitutes causes a ripple effect throughout a school.

Other school staff have to forgo their preparation periods to fill the gap, principals are called in to supervise students, and classes must double up or be split among other classrooms. Teachers who work one-on-one with special education students or with small groups of students, such as for reading, must scrap those assignments to cover a class.

In the survey by NEA in 1999, nine percent of the state respondents report that there are never enough substitutes available; and 42 percent say usually not enough. This severe shortage is forcing many states and localities to search for unique ways of supplying enough substitute teachers for the nation's classrooms.

A survey conducted by the Substitute Teaching Institute, based at Utah State University, found that 96 percent of the nation's districts face substitute shortages.

Iowa State Education Association reports on utilization as follows: Since technology has erased boundaries among labor markets, the education enterprise has lost its former captive labor market of women, minorities, idealists, and upwardly mobile low-income people. Experienced teachers who take time out for child-rearing are not substituting nor are they returning to the profession. If schools can't compete for teaching talent, student achievement will suffer; and all the school improvement gains of the past 10 years will be lost. Associations should link student achievement to teacher quality and teacher quality to compensation. They should be flexible about incentives because these are the only alternative to lowering standards in a time of shortage.

What states are doing to prevent the shortage of substitute teachers

NEA surveyed state affiliates during the 1999-2000 school year. Among the innovations:

California. Year-round teachers are used as substitutes on their off times.

Hawaii. Teachers call a recording, leave pertinent information, and get a confirmation number--all done electronically. Teachers need not do anything else except lesson plans.

Illinois. In the Wheaton-Warrenville District 200, school officials held recruitment fair to sign up substitute teachers. The Appendix has a summary of a recent survey conducted by the Regional Office of Education Relations.

Iowa. Although there is a statewide shortage of short-term per day substitutes, the following measures have quadrupled the number of substitute teacher days:

  • The board of examiners increased the number of days that substitutes can teach from 90 per year to 180.

  • The board allows anyone with a regular license to be a substitute, provided the person is not already employed and under contract.

Missouri. Some creative districts hire permanent substitutes to fill their needs.

Nebraska. With the teacher shortage, many long-term substitutes now have full contracts. The best substitute systems seem to be dial-in voice message systems.

North Carolina. Some localities hire a full-time substitute for a school. If no teachers are absent on a particular day, the substitute does clerical work or whatever else is needed.

Ohio. Some local level strategies are as follows:
Negotiating contract language that allows teachers to substitute during their planning time or increasing the pay at a cost to the district, most are at $15 per class.

  • Asking teachers to volunteer planning periods to cover classes.

  • Raising the hourly pay rate for teachers who substitute during their preparation time (also completely voluntary) at rates from $15 to $22 per period.

  • Taking resource teachers (e.g., Title teachers, special education teachers) off their assignments and sending them into the classrooms. The local association has fought this issue by bargaining regular teachers' planning time within the student day--which is during special time--thus preventing the use of music, physical education, and art teachers as substitutes.

  • Hiring permanent substitutes at every level if funding is available, paying them an hourly rate. They are not part of the bargaining unit.

  • Giving substitutes bonus money ($200-$300) after they have substituted for 30 days.

  • Having a dollar scale that increases each day that the substitute returns to the district.

  • Hiring a few long-term substitutes at the high school level, paying them on base salary, and providing benefits after a number of days. Substitutes are assigned to a different classroom daily.

  • Sponsoring an event where new or soon-to-graduate education students are given an informal interview, during which the district explains the need for substitutes. Many agree to be casual substitutes until a full-time job is available.

Tennessee. TEA conducts professional development sessions for substitutes upon request by school systems. The four-hour session covers the "do's and don'ts" of classroom management and other information. Some school districts provide substitute training and require interested individuals to attend this training before their names are placed on substitute lists.

Wisconsin. The WEA Professional Development Academy, which works collaboratively within the Wisconsin Education Association Council and with other agencies, associations, and institutions, has an excellent training program for substitutes that focuses on (1) providing a safe and secure environment and (2) ensuring a productive learning experience for students. The project began in 1995 when, to counteract a statewide shortage of substitute teachers, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction implemented emergency rules allowing a person with a baccalaureate degree to obtain a short-term substitute teaching permit without a license.

The teaching permits extend for three years and allow holders to spend up to 20 consecutive days in the same classroom. The Academy provides instruction by a group of trainers, all of whom are teacher-certified and are currently substitute teachers or have substituted for a considerable period of time. A one-day workshop covers the basic information needed to meet the mandatory training requirement for non-certified substitutes. About six months' later, participants attend half-day workshops to discuss their experiences and gain additional knowledge from colleagues and seminar leaders. School districts finance the workshops, although participants sometimes pay for part or all of the class. The project was initially funded by a grant from NEA's Foundation for the Improvement of Education.

In Oshkosh, the dean of the college of education and human services, 13 other faculty members, and a graduate student have all pledged to work as substitutes in the public schools at least one day a month.

Washington. The Seattle School District held a "substitute summit" to discuss proposals for easing the shortage, such as increasing substitute pay by 50 percent, assigning "permanent substitutes" to each building to allow them to develop relationships with students and staff, and providing incentives for schools to reduce their need for substitutes.