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

Elizabeth Moje

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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