One of the surprises of my look into state by state teacher shortages was the widespread reporting of a substitute teacher shortage. I knew we had a problem in my region. I didn't realize it was a problem everywhere.
Several writers have tried to parse out the problem and offer solutions, but I don't find anybody doing any serious research on the issue. So until that turns up, let me fill the void with more speculation and anecdotal evidence. You're welcome.
One writers specifically singles out the ACA as NOT a problem. Many folks were worried that districts would cap substitute hours to avoid having to pay health care costs, thus effectively reducing the number of total sub-hours available. But that shortage-by-Obamacare assumes a pool of subs who wanted to work all the time, and that may not be a safe assumption in any markets. So maybe a culprit, maybe not.
That same source also suggests that greater absenteeism is a culprit--iow, we need more subs. Can we get teachers to miss less school? The writer suggests that an increase in in-service training is the problem. And so we can chalk up the sub shortage as another side effect of the reformster movement.
Fewer people in the teacher pipeline also seems a good bet. Fewer people coming out of teacher programs means fewer people "auditioning" for jobs in school districts.
I would bet we are losing some of those as well. Here comes an anecdote.
When I came back to my area, I started out as a sub. I was single; I sank my nest egg into a mobile home in a trailer park. Back then (early 80's) a day of subbing paid $50. Two days of work paid my lot rent, and after that it was all gravy (well, spagetti and generic sauce, anyway). I couldn't have supported a family on sub pay, but I could live independently. But in thirty five years the going sub rate in my region has gone up about thirty-five dollars. If it had kept pace with inflation, the sub rate would be at about $130.
Point is this. In 1981, I could live on sub pay and hold on until a job turned up. Nowadays, subs may take on another easy-to-schedule job like waitressing and still not be able to support themselves. A teacher hoping to land a real gig may end up taking themselves out of the pool because of their selfish desires for food and shelter. In many areas, teaching has joined the long list of modern jobs that you can't afford to break into unless you have well-off parents or a good trust fund.
The other common sub back in the day was a nice lady with a teaching certificate who had stayed home to raise kids and, now that they were older, was ready to earn a little pin money to supplement the main income her husband brought home. That scenario is by the wayside as well, of course.
Bottom line: lots of people need to make a living too badly to stay available to sub pools.
This dovetails with another oft-cited culprit--an improving economy that means people can do better and get an actual job. I'm not sure how much this holds water, but the argument is out there.
Many states have come up with many creative ways to fill their sub gaps. NEA has a whole list, and some of it is a little horrifying-- Georgia and Florida are among the states that only require a high school diploma to be a sub. But opening the doors wide to any warm body is not a great answer, either. Pennsylvania years ago tried a Guest Teacher program; with a little training, anybody who'd ever held down a job could become a substitute teacher. We had lots of folks sign up, but very few of them survived their first few encounters with actual students. (Turns out that while your office subordinates may have listened to you because you were the boss, sixteen year olds are less so inclined.)Substituting is hard work-- in some ways more grueling than having a regular classroom assignment-- and lots of folks find out they'd just rather not.
Substitute shortages are a good example of our avoidance of obvious solutions. How could we possibly convince more people to become substitute teachers?
Pay them more.
Yes, there are other factors that would help. Nothing will lose a sub faster than a building where nobody is in charge and no discipline is maintained. And it's nice to make subs feel at home, like part of the team, and not like a stranger who's supposed to know what to do through some sort of psychic power. But mostly it's pretty simple. If people can't afford to live on the wages you're paying, people will take any other job except the one you're offering.
A good sub pool is critical. A good sub keeps classes moving forward and makes sure that the needs of students are met even if the regular teacher must miss. A bad sub means it will take me three days to make up for the one day I had to miss. A good sub honors the promise that a school should make-- no matter what, we will get you the education you were promised. It seems obvious that we do not want to draw subs only from the pool of People Who Couldn't Find Anything Else To Do In The Whole World.
Heck, you could get crazy and hire permanent subs as some districts do-- a person who is hired at a full contract with full benefits and who is there every day to cover whatever needs to be covered.
Substitute shortage is yet another problem to which we know the solution. It's just that the solution costs money, and we don't wanna. A good substitute teacher is worth her weight in gold, but we prefer to offer only peanuts.