A year is a long time in a child’s education. It’s also how much time kids can spend with substitute teachers from kindergarten through high school — time that’s all but lost for learning.


Despite pressure on schools to increase instructional time and meet performance goals, the vacuum created by teacher absenteeism has been all but ignored — even though new research suggests it can have an adverse effect in the classroom.


The problem isn’t just with teachers home for a day or two with the flu. Schools’ use of substitutes to plug full-time vacancies — the teachers that kids are supposed to have all year — is up dramatically.


Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter, among a handful of researchers who have closely studied the issue, says the image of spitballs flying past a daily substitute often reflects reality. “Many times substitutes don’t have the plan in front of them,” Clotfelter said. “They don’t have all the behavioural expectations that the regular teachers have established, so it’s basically a holding pattern.”

Clotfelter’s examination of North Carolina schools is part of emerging research suggesting that teacher absences lead to lower student test scores, even when substitutes fill in.

Raegen Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, is examining the impact of teacher absences on fourth-grade test scores in an urban school district he chooses not to identify. His findings show when the regular teacher is gone for two weeks, it can set students back at least that amount of time.

“Teachers often have to re-teach material, restore order and rebuild relationships after absences,” said Miller, who is conducting the research with Harvard University.

Part of the problem may be that standards for substitutes vary widely but are typically far below those for full-time regular teachers. Some schools don’t require background checks, and many don’t require substitutes to have attended college, let alone graduated.

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