Editorials

How to solve the substitute teacher shortage

Substitute teacher Lowell Cosgrove, left, helps student Mackenzie Evans, 9, take an online reading exam on an iPad connected to the Internet in a classroom at Sheridan Elementary School in Sheridan on  Feb. 11. School districts locally and across the country are struggling to keep a big enough pool of substitute teachers.
Substitute teacher Lowell Cosgrove, left, helps student Mackenzie Evans, 9, take an online reading exam on an iPad connected to the Internet in a classroom at Sheridan Elementary School in Sheridan on Feb. 11. School districts locally and across the country are struggling to keep a big enough pool of substitute teachers. rbenton@sacbee.com

It’d be easy to blame the shortage of good substitute teachers available to Sacramento area schools all on money.

Pay in fact is low. But like most things related to public education, the reality is much more complicated. It’s one that school officials need to face, especially in Sacramento, where teacher absenteeism is worse than in other large California districts.

As reported in a story Monday by The Sacramento Bee’s Diana Lambert, school districts across the country, and locally, struggle to keep a big enough pool of substitutes to fill in on teacher training days, take over classrooms when teachers are ill, and step in and out of classrooms in need of a temporary educator.

School districts in the Sacramento region should boost substitute pay. Depending on the district, substitutes in the region earn between $90 and $135 a day.

A sub earns the equivalent of a day’s work as a Hollywood extra – and managing a classroom is a whole lot tougher than hanging around a set all day waiting to spend a few minutes pretending to walk down a busy street.

Such a wage doesn’t give much incentive to highly educated people, especially considering that subs don’t receive the same benefits or stability as regular teachers.

Mediocre pay and instability may not matter in a down economy, but the jobs picture is rebounding. People with college degrees have options other than subbing.

There’s also been a breakdown in the teacher pipeline. A career as a public school teacher hasn’t been such a great bet in recent years, when schools had their budgets slashed and froze hiring. It takes years of education to become qualified to teach at a public school, even for substitutes.

In addition to boosting pay, local school districts should look at innovative ways to attract and retain substitute teachers. They could, for example, loosen requirements for substitutes, or partner with local universities to provide qualified teachers.

A troubling part of the picture is teacher absenteeism. A study last year by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that Sacramento City Unified has a teacher absence rate of 12 days per year, above the average of about 10 days for the nation’s large urban areas. And Sacramento teachers skip class at rates that are higher than other urban districts in the state – San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and even giant Los Angeles.

Even more concerning, the study characterized about 20 percent of the Sacramento City Unified School District teachers as chronically absent. The rate of truant Sacramento teachers is significantly higher than other California districts studied.

The solution won’t be simple. But the school board, with its two new members, and Sacramento’s relatively new superintendent, José Banda, need to confront and solve it. Absent teachers combined with shortages of good subs means kids’ education suffers.

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