Monday, December 28, 2015

Outsourcing Subs: A Big Fat Philly Fail

Last summer, reaction abounded over Philly schools' plan to outsource its substitute teaching to the temp company Source4Teachers.

In July, some quick googling told me this about the company:

S4T has run into trouble in some of the markets it has moved into. With typical complaints about the service including unqualified subs and ballooning costs (but stagnant sub wages). In at least one case, S4T's contract was terminated after allegations of hitting a student.

Reviews at were not encouraging:

CEO is socially awkward and the President of the organization has a God complex and depending on the day of the week or which way the wind is blowing your guess is as good as anyone's as to how you might be treated on a given day. Benefits are non-existent, leadership is void. The COO is a former administrator that couldn't manage his way out of a paper bag.

S4T's plans for Philly were, shall we say, counter-intuitive. They were hired not just (or maybe even "even") to increase the sub supply, but to decrease the cost of it. They would build the sub pool by paying subs less that the district had previously paid.

If you're thinking, "Well, that sounds like a plan destined to fail," September found you sitting on the Told You So Throne. S4T had about 10% of the teachers they needed. Philly's previous best fill rate had been about 66%-- S4T wasn't hitting half that. And to make matters even less encouraging, S4T really didn't have a clue about what to do next:

"We've hired a good number of district originals, and many of them are just not accepting jobs," Murphy said. "Frankly, we're a little unsure why."

If you want to watch me take a look at S4T's company website and sadly ironic PR copy, you can do that here. But for the moment, we are going to bring the story up to today because this morning reporter Kevin McCory is checking in to see how the sub privatization plan is working out.

Short answer: very poorly.

A sad sidelight to McCory's story is that few teachers were willing to speak out on the record for fear of retaliation. Way to maintain that healthy work environment, Philly school administration!

But what is on the record is more than enough to paint the picture.

Average fill rate last year? 64%

Best day for S4T? 37%

And as McCory notes, that all-district number hides just how bad things are in schools where substitutes prefer not to tread. And where subs are not found, teachers must give up work periods to cover classes. This is hard on a building. It means that teachers don't have a period in which to get paperwork done, copies made, take meetings with parents or peers. And it creates huge pressure for teachers not to miss school, even when they are really sick or just need to, finally, get to the doctor for a long-stewing health issue. None of this is good for anybody in the building, including students.

It's fair to note that Philly's problems are not unique. In my own PA county, which is largely rural and small-town, subs are in short supply, and that's not just a problem for all the reasons listed above, but because our contract says that if I cover a class during my work period, I'm paid for it. No sub = pulled teachers coverage = really expensive sub.

And McCory quotes the former chief talent officer (seriously, can we not have a moratorium, on ridiculous job titles) pointing out that central office cuts hurt the district's ability to manage the sub pool. We went through that, too. We use a website that basically serves substitutes as an ebay for teacher absences.

Teacher Kristin Combs says that Philly made the mistake of hiring a contractor without significant experience in a large urban district. Source4Teachers' website doesn't have anything to say about which district's it handles, but they certainly had some kind of fantasy goggles on when they made their pitch for Philly. They promised 75% on Day One (they were off by about 64%) and a 90% rate by January.

Earlier reporting said that if the company misses that 90% mark in January, they will suffer financial penalties. It seems safe to say that come January, absolutely nobody who was part of this business deal is going to be happy with how it's going. My bet is that even if Philly doesn't fire S4T, the failing flailing sub service will quit, and that will leave Philly's embattled schools (which, like the rest of us, are still trying to function in a state that is still without a budget, so schools are still without state money) with a decision to make. What next? Do they go back to running their own sub business? Will they be able to coax back all the subs that S4T's low pay chased away, and how much will it cost them to do it? Or will Philly's school leaders continue to pretend they are unfamiliar with the law of supply and demand? Can they find one more company willing to make outlandish promises it can't keep in order to tide them over for another year?

It's a puzzler. Unfortunately, it's also a losing proposition for the teachers and students of Philly schools.

1 comment:

  1. As a recently retired Philly teacher, I was told that Philly couldn't hire retired teachers because they hadn't declared their shortage an emergency. Many retired teachers would have subbed, perhaps in the buildings they retired from if nowhere else, if they had been given the chance.

    Now I'm three years out and I don't think you could talk me into going back now with all that's going on. All I can say is "Good luck!"