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Editorial: Overreliance on substitute teachers must change

Education leaders have predictive data that tell them when students are at risk of failing or dropping out. One of those indicators is how often they show up in the classroom. Perhaps they need to view data on teachers in the same way to help determine their classroom effectiveness.

A couple of related issues emerged from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review article on substitute teachers. Inland Northwest school districts are surprisingly reliant upon them, and Idaho has alarmingly low standards for those who are allowed to take over a classroom. Moreover, the absentee rate for teachers in Spokane Public Schools is higher than the national average and higher than the rate for their students.

Ideally, regular teachers would be in the classroom as much as possible. Sickness and professional training sessions are justifiable absences, but vacations represent 8 percent of the missed time. Overall, the result is SPS schools are more reliant on substitutes because teachers are away from their classrooms so often.

The national average for teacher absenteeism is 8 percent to 10 percent daily. In SPS schools, it’s 11 percent to 13 percent, meaning up to 215 subs appear in classrooms each day. Meanwhile, the district’s daily average for student absenteeism (excused and unexcused combined) is 8.36 percent, according to rough district figures, though students don’t have professional development days. Still, a reasonable goal would be for the two rates to more closely align.

The Coeur d’Alene School District’s absenteeism rate for teachers matches the national average – 10 percent – but it has another weakness: a “teacher” with only a high school diploma may be the replacement. That’s the low bar set by state law. In Washington, subs must be certified, with a bachelor’s degree and one year in a teaching program.

So while Spokane teachers take more time off, at least their replacements are qualified. In the Coeur d’Alene District, subs are paid $60 a day, which is what some baby sitters command for watching far fewer kids. Turning teachers into sitters, even temporarily, is a very bad idea. In the SPS schools, subs make $116 a day.

Idaho districts muddle through as best they can. Potential subs with teaching credentials are given priority, but the paltry pay is a huge disincentive to taking on the considerable challenge of controlling a classroom of strangers. There have been some efforts to beef up state standards, but the rural districts say they don’t have a ready supply of certified teachers.

Idaho law doesn’t allow districts to lower substitute teacher standards, but they can raise them. However, districts are generally stingy when it comes to paying teachers. Lower standards justify lower pay, which is an equation that subtracts student learning.

SPS Superintendent Shelley Redinger is planning to hire permanent substitutes, so students have more continuity of instruction. That seems like a smart move, but the district still needs to figure out why its regular teachers are frequently absent and then do something about it.

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