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No Teacher, No Sub

October 07, 2000

It's 8 a.m., class is about to begin. Where's the teacher? Call a sub. Yes, but. . . .

Most school districts can't find enough substitutes to cover the need. The shortage is national, the result of a booming economy pumping out attractive jobs that offer better pay and benefits than substitute teaching.

As the pool of substitutes shrinks, the demand grows. The trend toward smaller classes requires more teachers, and eventually more substitutes. Absences can occur for reasons other than illness. For instance, subs are needed when teachers are assigned to professional development sessions during regular class time.

When no substitute can be found, a principal often has to take over the class or assign the students to other teachers. Either way, the students lose out.

Teacher absence is an important factor in students' progress. While poverty is a very strong predictor of results on California's new Academic Performance Index, the number of days a regular teacher is absent also correlates with test scores, according to a recent briefing given to the school board by the research division of the Los Angeles Unified School District. When teachers are out frequently, scores tend to drop.

Because of the volume of requests in the school district, replacing every absent teacher is difficult. Schools asked for 268,606 substitutions during the past school year. Districtwide, 90% of absent teachers were replaced in elementary schools, while 88% were covered in secondary schools. Those percentages mask an unacceptably high rate of unfilled requests for substitutes in the district's southern area, where students often find themselves without their regular teacher.

More than 18% of requests for elementary substitutes went unfilled in schools south of Century Boulevard, including those in Watts and San Pedro. Only 2.5% of elementary requests were unfilled in the district's northern area, which covers the San Fernando Valley. Geography explains some of the gap because many substitutes will accept only assignments close to home or the school that their own children attend.

The disparity is more severe at the high school level, where students are generally considered harder to manage and the classwork is more difficult. At the secondary level, more than 25% of requests for substitute teachers received no positive response in the southern area of the district, while only 6.5% went unmet in the northern area. Both figures are too high, but LAUSD officials acknowledge they must do much better in areas that are the hardest to staff.

To address the shortage, the LAUSD will try to discourage teacher absenteeism and expand the substitute pool by recruiting subs throughout the year. That's quite a job for a district scrambling to find enough permanent teachers to staff every classroom.

Substitute teachers may need an incentive to report to schools that have chronic shortages. It's a challenge to handle a class that has endured a continuous series of substitutes for days, weeks or even months. In the past, the LAUSD offered extra pay to substitute teachers willing to take on jobs in the toughest areas. The school board should determine the cost of paying such incentives now and try to assess how effective a new program would be in providing more substitute teachers.

When the bell rings, every class should have a teacher.

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