Expert: Michigan’s reliance on long-term subs ‘should concern all of us’

Elizabeth Moje

University of Michigan School of Education dean Elizabeth Birr Moje says Michigan risks widening achievement gaps between poor and more affluent students through the increased use of untrained teachers.

More Michigan classrooms are led by untrained teachers – a fact that worries Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

Moje can site studies showing students learn less with a less-qualified teacher. But she shouldn’t have to cite studies – it’s common sense, Moje said.

She answered a series of written questions from Bridge Magazine about Michigan’s long-term substitute explosion over the past five years. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: The number of long-term substitutes leading Michigan classrooms has grown tenfold in five years. Does that concern you? 

Moje: The increase in long-term substitutes should concern all of us because it means that our children and youth are not accessing full opportunity to learn. The growing reliance on long-term substitute teachers is especially alarming when one considers the minimal requirements for these long-term subs.

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A rising number of Michigan public schools are staffing classrooms with long-term substitutes with as little as 60 college credits and no formal education training. Bridge examines the implications of this practice for the state’s already-struggling schools. 

The requirement of only 60 hours of college coursework, with no stipulation that the coursework should be situated in a program of study, should concern every parent in the state of Michigan. What’s more, the lack of a requirement for training or prior experience in teaching practice means that these long-term subs could have never worked with children or youth before being tasked with teaching them content knowledge and skills. 

Teaching is a challenging profession which requires deep knowledge of child development, language development, target content knowledge, an understanding of the science of learning, the development of and practice in teaching skills, and practices and the support of a professional community.

Well-resourced districts put newly certified, college-educated teachers on probation and observe them regularly to ensure that they are doing their best work. How can long-term subs with such minimal requirements do the best teaching for all of our children? How will they ensure our children learn to their full capacity?

Put another way, it is difficult to imagine how teachers who have not themselves completed a two- or four-year university degree will be able to help young people become “college and career-ready.” And yet that is exactly what our state standards call for teachers to accomplish.  

Bridge: What is the impact on learning of having a non-certified teacher (or, at best, a teacher teaching out of certification area) leading a classroom? 

Moje: The research is crystal-clear about the importance of having an effective teacher every year. Having an effective teacher throughout one’s learning life is the single most important factor in a child’s academic success.

A report by the RAND Corporation states that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most. When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.” 

A study out of Stanford found that teacher effectiveness is correlated with teacher certification: Alternatively-certified teachers are also generally less effective than certified teachers.   

Check how many long-term substitutes are in your school district or charter

Children who are not afforded strong teachers throughout their learning experience are less likely to achieve. And the evidence suggests that the children most likely to experience one or more long-term subs are the children most in need of high-quality teaching. Also sobering is the fact that our current mechanisms for evaluating teachers — a mix of supervisor observations and children’s test score results — are irrelevant if schools are staffed by long-term subs whose evaluations are unlikely to enter the mix when school staffing is considered.  

Bridge: The children who need a high-quality teacher the most (low-income, urban, rural) are the children most likely to be taught by a long-term substitute. What impact do you believe that has in a state that already has a large academic gap between socioeconomic groups? 

Moje: The achievement gap is actually an opportunity gap. Children are missing out on educational opportunities when they don’t have access to a skilled, certified teacher whose continued development in the profession has been supported. And the children most likely to encounter long-term subs are those living in high-needs communities. 

Bridge: Why is there an increased use of long-term substitutes, and do you know if the same thing is happening in other states? 

Moje: The increasing reliance on long-term substitutes (as well as other solutions to staff classrooms) is the outcome of a shortage of working certified teachers in Michigan, which disproportionately has an impact on low-income, urban, and rural families.  

Michigan is not the only state experiencing a shortage of well-prepared teachers who are willing to work in the profession. The U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing demonstrates how widely this problem is felt in our country.

Bridge: Do you have any policy recommendations to address this issue? 

Moje: Education leaders should not be satisfied with short-term solutions to the urban and impending rural teacher shortage crisis, especially when those solutions exacerbate inequities by allowing the least prepared people to teach the students who are likely to have the greatest learning needs.

Instead, all those committed to improving education opportunities for all children and youth need to work together to solve the issues facing the teaching workforce because those issues produce the increased reliance on long-term substitutes.  

I frequently speak with families, teachers, administrators, scholars, policymakers, and members of the media about how to solve the issues we are facing with the teaching workforce. These solutions begin with giving our teachers the respect, compensation, and support they deserve.  

It is also crucial to look at the circumstances that challenge schools when trying to hire a full staff of certified teachers. We need a better understanding of the roadblocks to recruiting teachers to urban and rural areas, some of which include challenging school conditions such as old buildings or lack of resources, lack of professional support for novice teachers, low or stagnant salaries, and students with high need due to undereducation and the effects of intergenerational poverty. 

Considering this list of challenges should underscore why uncertified and minimally educated long-term substitute teachers can only be a short-term solution to the immediate crisis. To address the needs of children who have been undereducated for years, the field needs the best professionals.   

Some possible policy solutions:

  • Residency programs that support new teachers in a successful launch during their early years of teaching. Residency programs provide supports for novice teachers to hone their skills and develop a sense of efficacy as professionals.
  • Housing incentives that encourage teachers to live in the same communities in which they work have the additional benefit of investing in the community and connecting teachers more fully with their students, which is more likely to make teachers want to stay in the profession.
  • Equitable, long-term solutions begin with providing districts in the greatest need — as measured by achievement metrics, the numbers of students requiring specialized services, and the amount of aging and crumbling infrastructure — more resources so that they can increase teacher supports, salaries and incentives.

Only when all school districts can give teachers the respect, compensation  and support they deserve will all school districts be able to recruit and retain teachers successfully.

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Charles Cubbage
Thu, 08/08/2019 - 9:33am

I’m curious about the comparison between charter schools and public schools with respect to teacher certification.

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 9:35am

As a school leader in a rural Michigan district, I can tell you that this article is spot on. Rural districts are struggling to fill vacancies at all levels and in all content areas. Those students who are graduating with teaching degrees are being hired right away. Sometimes even before they've graduated. This means there is no pool of teachers looking for employment and that there are very, very few certified subs available to hire. Thus when something happens, a teacher becomes ill, takes another job, or retires, especially when this happens after all the grads have been snapped up in the spring, schools have no choice but to put whom they can find rather than someone they'd prefer.
I warned my representative in Lansing that this was coming eight years ago and that the problem is mainly that teaching is not competitive, wage-wise, with other degree earning fields--and it becomes less and less so with each passing year. The best and the brightest are not going pay top dollar to attain a degree that sees many, many beginning teachers have to work a second job to make ends meet. That is not a goal one desires when one goes to college.
We are in a crisis of not having enough high quality, well trained candidates to replace the teachers who are retiring. Michigan needs to regain competitiveness with other states if it hopes to compete for advanced industries and businesses. Folks can complain about the cost of education all they like. We are seeing the results of education funding lagging behind inflation for years and years on end. Michigan is one of the few states in the nation losing population. The folks who are leaving are very often our young people who are taking better opportunities and their young families with them to other states. This exodus must be concern number one for every elected official in this state. You cannot be a top state in anything and lose your school aged families. Period. Someone in Lansing needs to be doing whatever it takes to restore our education system or we will continue to die on the vine.

Ron French
Thu, 08/08/2019 - 3:34pm

Hi Lou, could we repurpose your comment as a guest commentary for Bridge? If so, could you email me at thanks

Ron French


Fri, 08/09/2019 - 11:35am

Would you describe what the 'educational' system needs to be restored to, is it what was 50 years ago, 20 years, 8 years ago? Why should the public support what you want without knowing what it is? Is that how the education is taught, it tells students learn but then does not describe to the students how to learn, or help them understand why to learn?
Why doesn't the education system feel a need for accountability, a need to engage the public beyond parents, a need to describe and measure the value they provide, why do they hold such a distain for the public and the environment we live in? The marketplace outside the not for profit world is dynamic, it has to provide ever greater value to simply survive, it changes it practices and responsibilities to facilitate changing, why is Michigan education system above being dynamic, why is it always looking to the past for how they should be treated and perform?

Sharon Maxwell
Thu, 08/08/2019 - 10:17am

We just need talented and passionate people in the classroom, whatever their situation, and we need to help schools make that's possible. Bridge is trying to simplify a very complicated situation. A teacher certification doesn't automatically make someone an effective teacher, as we've seen.

And consider this: Mark Zuckerberg couldn't teach computer programming in a Michigan high school. Ron French couldn't teach journalism. Barack Obama couldn't teach political science.

David Waymire
Fri, 08/09/2019 - 8:45am

Right. Mark Zuckerberg probably hasn’t written a line of. Code in years, the coding process have dramatically change in the last 10 years. I. He’s a CEO who gives orders, not a teacher. You just made the point.

Bob Sornson
Thu, 08/08/2019 - 4:36pm

This article does a great job of describing the teacher shortage we have in Michigan. It does not fully describe the fewer bright young men and women who are choosing to go into the profession, or how teaching as a profession has been diminished by the disrespectful political process and by the public dismay at school reform initiatives at the state and federal level that never produce positive outcomes.
Among all the states, Michigan has demonstrated the greatest declines in student achievement in recent years. And yet the same voices are heard calling for another commission, another lobbying organization, or another legislative requirement for teacher certification, or school rating systems, or 3rd grade reading mandates and other matters of which they know so little.
It is past time for a new vision, new leadership, and a real plan of action to serve Michigan students as we move forward into the age of information, ideas and innovation.

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 9:34am

I agree. I participated in a teacher training the past two days and am amazed at the wonderful and dedicated women (for the most part, there was one man) who were there, preparing for another year of "confusion" and "disrespect". This state is on a slide to the bottom, and republican lawmakers who have gerrymandered their way into office lack knowledge, creativity, bipartisanship, and integrity to solve this problem. This is what happens when you have this kind of manipulation of government structures, and you no longer have a democratic system in place. Yes, we do have a Democratic governor is disabled by the legislature. All of these republicans will have to answer to their children and grandchildren for their complicity, selfishness and ego driven leadership.

Yes it is past time, but unless all of us get out and vote and break the log jam in MI politics, things will not change.

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 5:21pm

As long as teachers are being blamed for many of the social issues in our country it will continue to be difficult to attract the best and brightest. Start a teacher out at $33000 what do you expect? Seven years ago in our area they got a 10% pay cut, pay 20% of your health care costs and an increase in the pension system if you wanted coverage after retirement. Don"t forget besides social security, medicare, union dues, and the above and oh yes a large college loan. GOOD LUCK. R,L.

middle of the mit
Thu, 08/08/2019 - 10:04pm

The last few articles have hit pretty close to home. And from what I see up here some communities are willing to raise their tax base to help the schools and some aren't.

There are literally counties that have given up their homestead tax deduction for a few decades to pay for upgrades or new schools.

Others aren't willing to do it or can't afford to. Oh we could afford it if we wanted to or if those with the money would pay it. The problem up north is this, we have a lot of poor people up here. Those are the people that continue to provide the services that you seek when you vacation. There is money up here, but it is in pockets and those pockets don't like to share.

A good proportion of our population is retirees and they don't really want to pay for education even if it means less poverty and crime. And I think Bridge has an excellent job of letting MI know that the rural areas have a poverty and crime rate equal to big cities. Maybe not as a total but certainly as a per capita basis.

I have told many people since conservatives have taken over the State, so since 2010, don't be a teacher in MI.

And what is the case?

Hey! I am a welder, machinist and fitter. Can I teach English?

middle of the mit
Thu, 08/08/2019 - 10:24pm

I frankly am tired of charter schools. I don't have children. All of the kids in my family are grown and graduated. That doesn't mean that I don't care about the rest of the kids in my county.

What it does mean is that other people than me are deciding where MY TAX MONEY GOES.

And if I am going to be paying taxes to my local school district, That IS WHERE I WANT MY MONEY TO GO.

If you think you can get your kids into a charter school with other peoples money?

Maybe your a socialist?

I pay local taxes to my local school district for the express purpose of educating ALL the children in my area. I have no problem with that. When other parents want to take MY TAX MONEY and put to THEIR KIDS education? Pay for it yourself!

Why do you need my money? Why do you need a public voucher? Because you can't pay for educating your own kids?

This is the libertarian argument.

$7,000-13,000 per year! Per kid!


Thu, 08/08/2019 - 11:23pm

Dean Birr Moje seems very self confident that certification assures the quality of [in this case] the teachers. My experience both with education system with other professions show that to be a false assumption. At best certification is a verification of a minimum of knowledge of information and practices, it does not guarantee quality of performance, effectiveness of work, capacity to deliver the desired results.
I think it would have been helpful to readers to hear of specific knowledge, skills, practices that people could use as indicators of quality teaching performance.
What is surprising to me is how Dean Birr Moje like almost all in the educational system see teaching and teachers as homogeneous rather than see it in segments, much like how the schools are broken out [elementary, middle, and high school]. Each level seems to require a different set of skills, and as the nature of technology in the subjects change the knowledge and experience changes. What if rather than calling all who present in a classroom teachers, what if they we subject matter 'experts' and presented segments of the subject through the course of the school year. If the subject was high school physics couldn't it be beneficial for person who had has a career applying physics be a special presenter, similarly for a chemistry course, etc. The simple change in how we see the student changing could allow us to see teaching changing and allow us to change our thinking in address the changing needs. Why can't the educators accept change in how they work with the public, the taxpayers to incorporate them into how we address school concerns? Such a change in approach could have change the whole of the issue and means of solutions. An experienced engineer or chemist or physicist could bring a relevance to a topic that would be rare for a teacher to have had to apply. A teacher could manage more classrooms with a cadre of specialized subject matter 'substitutes'.
Why don't we hear any knew ideas, why aren't the education 'experts' able to consider different perspectives, why is only private companies can change and improve results talking to and listening to those who pay for their services and products [to survive]?

Joanna Shumaker
Wed, 08/14/2019 - 5:18pm

I agree that this is a problem. But the State makes it so difficult to be a teacher that people can't get certified without going through a long drawn out, expensive process. I was certified in two other states and MI would not accept my certification and made me jump through hoop after hoop to obtain "Michigan certification." So, if the state would not make it so hard to get certification here, we could have a lot more certified teachers to hire.

s. jarrell
Tue, 10/29/2019 - 7:32pm

I have to agree with Joanna, that a lot of the problems Michigan schools are going through are due to the problems created by our legislators. The entire sub problem is due to laws they have passed. Holly Hughes of the 91st district started it all, by passing a law she said would "heal" our underfunded liability. Not only did this not happen, but it has put us in this substitute shortage by taking out 4 years of retirees who would usually work as subs. Gov. Snyder's response to this was "change the law", really??????