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Is Michigan Facing a Substitute Teacher Shortage?

For the last several years, news reports, word of mouth, and the occasional highway billboard have all suggested that Michigan is facing a severe shortage of substitute teachers. But is it really?  And if so, what is the fallout?

It’s easy to take substitutes for granted. For most of us, our only experience with substitute teacher was when we had one while attending elementary or high school. When our regular teacher was sick or out for some other reason, we might continue with our lessons as scheduled, or we might wind up watching a movie instead of receiving lessons. Overall, we did not then, nor do we now, typically give substitutes very much thought. Even education researchers – including those who study teachers – find them easy to overlook.

Yet substitutes play an essential role in the educational system.  Like every employee, teachers are going to occasionally be out of the classroom, sometimes because of personal reasons and other times because of a school function (like professional development). There are also vacancies because teaching positions cannot be filled right away. In addition, unlike many other professions, schools do not have the internal flexibility to let a teaching position go vacant; students need to have a teacher in the classroom.

The lack of a sub can put strain on a school and hurt student learning.  Fellow teachers may be forced to give up planning periods to fill in for absent teachers. School leaders are often pulled away from their administrative duties, or class sizes swell as students are dispersed across other classrooms.

Given the importance of subs, and the problems caused by a shortage, there should be a lot of good data and a deep body of research on substitutes. There should be, but there’s not. At present, Michigan administrators, policymakers, and researchers have only scant evidence and few tested solutions to the problem.  

As part of an effort to start addressing this gap, the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) funded a partnership between MSU researchers and the Michigan Association for School Administrators (MASA) to collect information about substitutes from Michigan school district leaders. A recently released report, sponsored through one of IPPSR's Michigan Applied Public Policy Research grants, “There’s No Substitute: Michigan’s Substitute Teacher Shortage,” presents the results of a statewide survey, interviews, and focus groups. The research team found the following:

  • School district administrators report that the substitute shortage is very real, with the majority (64 percent) 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 percent reporting moderate or severe declines in the supply of substitutes.
  • District leaders point to provisions 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) appear to have had little effect on the substitute shortage.

According to Michigan’s school districts, the substitute shortage is very real. It is growing worse, and is unclear on how to fix it. Getting a handle on the problem is going to require collecting further data, conducting more detailed research analysis, and considering significant changes to state policy. It will also require decision makers to re-consider the role and value of substitutes. The last few decades have put teachers at the heart of school improvement efforts, and it is long past time to recognize that substitutes are an essential piece of the puzzle.

Nathan Burroughs is a researcher with Michigan State University’s Center for the Study of Curriculum Policy, and with the research firm Public Policy Associates.

Jacqueline Gardner is director of Data and Evaluation for Michigan State University’s Office of K-12 Outreach.

Dirk Zuschlag is a doctoral candidate in the education policy program in the College of Education, Michigan State University.