Michigan leans on long-term subs as its schools struggle
Mike Wilkinson and Ron French
Another was an assistant basketball coach before walking into an elementary school classroom.
A third was a wedding planner before teaching fifth-grade math and science.
None of them were certified teachers when they were assigned full-time teaching posts in Michigan classrooms. None majored in education in college.
More than 2,500 Michigan classrooms were led by long-term substitutes who weren’t certified teachers in the 2018-19 school year – a stunning tenfold increase in just five years that threatens to hobble efforts to improve the state’s K-12 public education system, a Bridge Magazine analysis shows.
Students who need good teachers the most – low-income and academically struggling students – are the most likely to be stuck with long-term substitutes who aren’t required to have a four-year degree or any teacher training.
Interviews with more than three-dozen school officials, education leaders, teachers and long-term substitutes describe a well-intentioned, stopgap measure designed to fill a few slots during a statewide teacher shortage that has metastasized into a policy that has seen some schools staff more than half their classrooms with long-term substitutes.
The policy ‒ allowing people with as few as 60 college credits in any subject to teach a class for a full year ‒ is now viewed as a “necessity” by the Michigan Department of Education to plug holes in schools that didn’t exist a decade ago. School and state leaders say they hope the use of long-term substitutes to staff classrooms is a temporary fix until the state addresses its teacher shortage.
But with no statewide policy efforts on the horizon to address the shortage of teachers in urban and rural regions of the state, it’s not clear how temporary the fix will be.
Having more Michigan classrooms led by untrained teachers because of a teacher shortage is “putting a Band-Aid on a wound,” said Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education. “It stops the bleeding, but doesn’t address the underlying problem.”
A traditional teacher certification in Michigan requires a bachelor’s degree in a teachable subject, completion of a teacher preparation program, student teaching experience and passing teacher certification tests that measure general and subject matter knowledge. There are also one-year, alternative certification programs for career professionals looking to move into education from other fields.
Michigan’s increased reliance on long-term substitutes who often have little or no education training is not a major problem in the Barry County area – but it is severe in some areas of the state. Several Detroit charter schools appear to have been staffed completely by long-term substitute teachers this past school year, according to a Bridge analysis of state data.
At Benton Harbor Area Schools, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has threatened to close the high school because of poor academic performance, 42 percent of classrooms were staffed by long-term substitutes during the past school year.
Yet long-term subs are rare in wealthy, suburban schools, the data show.
The state cannot have "expectations that are different based on the ZIP code you are coming from," said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The district had 92 long-term subs last year, less than 3 percent of the 3,500-member teaching staff.
To have “more than 50 percent of your faculty being long-term subs, that's unacceptable,” Vitti said.
According to Bridge’s analysis:
• Students attending low-income school districts and charters were three times more likely to have a classroom led by a long-term substitute than students in other districts.
• Charter school students were four times more likely to have a long-term substitute than students in traditional public schools.
• Students in the lowest academic-performing school districts and charters were more than three times more likely to have long-term substitutes instead of certified teachers.
• Sixteen charter school districts have more than half of their classrooms staffed with long-term substitutes; 25 charters and the Benton Harbor schools have more than 40 percent long-term subs.
The increase in long-term substitutes is an open secret among school leaders across the state, but may not be well known to the public. Schools aren’t required to inform parents when their children are taught by teachers with no education background (though some told Bridge they do), and several organizations including the Michigan Department of Education downplayed the significance of the trend.
Still, the growth in untrained teachers appears to run counter to calls to improve academic achievement in the states’ struggling public education system.
Indeed, Michigan legislators lowered state standards for substitute permits in 2018, from requiring 90 hours of college credit to requiring 60 hours – the equivalent of two years of college – or an associate’s degree.
No education groups objected.
In response to a written question on whether long-term substitutes impact learning in Michigan classrooms, Leah Breen, director of MDE’s Office of Educator Excellence, responded: “Yes, we think that the use of long-term substitute teachers are an important piece of solving educator shortages in some of our hardest-to-staff districts, and in lieu of being able to fill these placements with certified teachers, are the next best option for students.”
Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which advocates for the state’s charter school industry, also downplayed the impact of long-term substitutes, pointing to a Brookings Institution study that found no connection between teacher certification and student learning – although other studies show mixed results.
But Lou Ann Vidmar, a former art teacher who now represents union teachers in Cass and Berrien counties in southwestern Michigan, said she’s seen the negative impact of long-term subs on students, especially those from high-poverty schools where scores are typically well below state averages.
“It’s a wasted year,” for those students, she said. “It's just wasted time because usually that sub has not been trained in that subject matter.
“You are setting yourself up for failure,” Vidmar said.
Moje, of U-M, said the impact on students being taught by untrained teachers could be devastating.
“Having an effective teacher throughout one’s learning life is the single most important factor in a child’s academic success,” Moje said. “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 factors, including services, facilities, and even leadership.
A Stanford study found that students in classrooms led by certified teachers had higher academic achievement than students in classrooms of uncertified teachers are less effective.
Students and parents are familiar with short-term substitute teachers who pinch-hit in classrooms for teachers who are sick.
By contrast, long-term substitutes are hired by schools to be the full-time teacher in a classroom, often for a full school year.
A long-term substitute in Michigan can range from a certified teacher who is teaching a class in a subject they are not certified to teach, to someone with an associate’s degree in any subject whatsoever, to someone who attended two years of college without finishing and has no teacher education training.
Bridge analyzed data received from the Office of Educator Excellence through a Freedom of Information Act request. Bridge combined three categories of substitute permits that districts request from MDE – full-year basic, full-year shortage and extended daily – to provide a more complete representation of the number of classrooms headed by substitutes for an extended period of time. That methodology was endorsed by Craig Thiel of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan public policy research organization.
Absent from that count are people hired as expert substitutes – mechanics for an auto mechanics vocational tech program, for example – and people who work as short-term substitutes, by filling in for sick or absent teachers on a day-to-day basis.
To students and parents, long-term subs are virtually indistinguishable from certified teachers – they are full-time teachers reporting to the same classroom every day. Their pay can range from the same as first-year certified teachers in some school districts (typically in the low $30,000s) to less than $100 per school day in other districts and charters.
As recently as the 2014-15 school year, there were 235 long-term substitutes teaching in Michigan public schools, which include traditional school districts and charter schools. By 2018-19, that number had reached 2,538.
Last school year, 1 in 27 teachers in the state’s traditional and charter public schools (3.4 percent) was a long-term substitute, according to Bridge’s analysis.
Hundreds of districts had few to no long-term subs. But in others, typically higher-poverty, lower-performing schools, they were far more common.
“I don’t want to sound like the sky is falling,” said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and School Administrators. “But having a quality teacher in front of children makes a big difference, and we’re not seeing that right now.”
Officials from authorizers that oversee charters told Bridge they are aware of the hiring struggles and said they are working with charter operators to increase the number of qualified teachers.
Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for Central Michigan University’s charter school office, which oversees more than 50 charters, said the school makes sure its charters follow state rules regarding certification and long-term permits.
If CMU sees that a charter has numerous teacher vacancies, it requires a plan to “remedy” the situation “by having full-time teachers,” Brzezinski said. Sixteen of the CMU’s more than 50 charters had long-term subs equal to 20 percent or more of teaching slots last year.
Some rural traditional school districts have also turned to long-term substitutes. In tiny Mid-Peninsula School District, covering 350 square miles around Hiawatha National Forest, four of the 12 teachers – a third – are long-term substitutes. Hiring teachers who aren’t certified, or not certified in the subject areas they are teaching, is sometimes a necessity when the district can’t find qualified teachers to move to the rural Upper Peninsula, officials said.
“We posted for high school science and high school math (positions) twice and couldn’t find anyone,” said Mid-Peninsula Superintendent Eric VanDamme. “I searched high and low for these folks. Our applicant pool is narrower every year.”
VanDamme was able to hire long-term substitutes who he said are qualified (one was certified to teach in Florida, VanDamme said), but he acknowledged the problem isn’t going away soon.
“One of our biggest problems is our lack of ability to offer competitive wage scales compared to other professions,” VanDamme said. “I can be a plumber in rural northern Michigan who makes $65,000 plus benefits, or go to school for four years (to be a teacher) and make $30,000 and have $80,000 in student loans. That’s easy math.”
At Charlton Heston Academy charter school in Northern Michigan’s Roscommon County, 44 percent of teachers were long-term substitutes in 2018-19. Charlton Heston Superintendent David Patterson said the school has had trouble attracting certified teachers, but also said he believes the school’s long-term subs are doing a great job.
The growth in long-term substitutes is too recent for an analysis on the impact on learning. But students attending schools with low student achievement on Michigan’s M-STEP tests are more likely to be in a district with more long-term subs than the state average.
For example, Charlton Heston charter school has the highest share of long-term substitutes in the four-county Crawford Oscoda Ogemaw Roscommon Intermediate School District, and also has the lowest student achievement. Similarly, Benton Harbor Area Schools has the lowest student achievement in Berrien County and the second-highest share of long-term substitutes in 2018-19, many of whom did not have a college degree, according to former superintendent Herrera.
Herrera told Bridge the district, which is under pressure from the state to improve test scores, was on track to have more than 60 percent long-term subs next school year.
Vidmar, the former art teacher, is skeptical Benton Harbor can meet the improvements mandated by the state when the number of long-term subs is only going to increase this upcoming school year.
“How can you do that (improve) with long-term subs?”
Detroit’s Vitti said he doubts most parents even know whether their child’s teacher is certified. In poorer districts like Detroit, he said many parents just assume their child has a certified teacher.
The state doesn't require school districts to inform parents if their child is being taught by a long-term substitute, though Charlton Heston Academy and others told Bridge they do alert parents.
State Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Ann Arbor, said the state should require districts to alert parents when a non-certified teacher is hired.
“A well-run school has an obligation to tell parents who is at the front of classrooms,” she said.
“Pretty much any adult with two years of community college can be a warm body in a classroom,” said Sheryl Kennedy, a former teacher and school administrator who is now a Democratic state representative. “It’s terrifying.”
From the point of view of the Michigan Department of Education, though, skyrocketing use of long-term substitutes as full-time teachers is a solution to teacher shortages.
“The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has been working diligently with Michigan schools to utilize long-term substitute permits,” wrote MDE’s Breen. School districts and charters are “taking advantage of a variety of flexible placements, residency programs, and ‘grow-your-own’ programs, when a certified teacher is not available.”
Breen pointed out that long-term substitutes must receive positive evaluations to keep their jobs, have a mentor teacher and, in core subject areas such as math or science, must have “subject-area expertise.”
“Long-term sub permits allow teachers to expand their endorsements (allowing them to teach more subjects or grade levels) for greater flexibility and knowledge. They allow paraprofessionals who are in the process of becoming a teacher, and have already demonstrated a commitment to the profession, to teach while they are earning their degree. They allow scientists and mechanics to fill very important roles in the school setting based on content expertise.”
When asked if long-term subs represent a diminution of teacher quality, Breen wrote, “The Michigan Department of Education perceives it as a necessity, rather than a diminution.”
Kennedy, D-Davison, called the trend “a travesty.”
“I’m super-concerned about it,” Kennedy said. “But it’s a reality. Often, superintendents have to make choices between putting certified teachers in special ed classrooms or regular classrooms .... because there’s such a shortage of certified teachers.”
Education experts say that the quality of the teaching staff is the biggest in-school determinant of student success.
“The research shows that kids who have two, three, four strong teachers in a row will eventually excel, no matter what their background, while kids who have even two weak teachers in a row will never recover,” wrote Kati Haycock, founder of The Education Trust,a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based group that works to cut achievement gaps in students.
Teaching involves more than knowing a course’s subject matter. An engineer may know the ins and outs of algebra, but might not know how best to demonstrate that knowledge to fidgeting middle-schoolers. Experts say that strategies taught in university teacher prep programs are generally critical to learning effective classroom skills.
Numerous education and political leaders acknowledge that the mass use of long-term substitutes threatens to hobble the state’s drive to improve education, but that they see few quick fixes.
“We (the Legislature) talk about the teacher shortage, and MDE says we need to stop talking down about teachers,” said Kennedy, the teacher-turned-lawmaker. “It’s such a basic thing to say.
“But we also need to pay teachers appropriately so young people who want to be teachers can pay their $80,000 in student loans,” Kennedy said.
Brad Paquette, R-Berrien Springs, was a teacher in Niles before joining the Legislature. He said he saw a lot of colleagues leave the profession because of pay, and because classroom teaching bears little resemblance to the theoretical lessons learned in university education programs.
Paquette has his own story about being a substitute: He had just graduated from college and applied to be a substitute teacher in Benton Harbor to earn a few dollars, Paquette said. “They saw I’d worked at Taco Bell in high school and said I was the new nutrition teacher,” Paquette said.
Later, when school officials learned he had minored in Spanish in college, he was named the Spanish teacher.
“That lasted about a week,” Paquette said with a laugh, “until MDE found out.”
Today, with teacher shortages more severe and long-term substitutes more accepted, MDE might not have stepped in to stop Paquette from taking those posts.
But Paquette said Michigan’s education problems go far beyond long-term substitutes.
“Maybe we need to rethink what an education system is,” Paquette said. “Our public schools are nothing like the real world.”
MDE’s Breen said the state needs to find a way to incentivize teachers to live and work in urban and rural areas of the state. That could involve paying teachers more in hard-to-staff areas; student loan forgiveness, housing stipends and child care subsidies.
Those things take money. A statement from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office in response to a query about the growth in long-term substitutes referred to the Democratic governor’s plan to offer more funding for students with greater needs, such as low-income students and English-language learners.
The increase in long-term substitutes ‒- particularly among students who need the most help ‒ should be ringing alarm bells across the state, said Peter Haines, superintendent of Ottawa Intermediate School District.
“This is systemic discrimination,” Haines said. “Parents are bringing their children to our schools with hope.
“The least we can do is meet them at the door with a qualified teacher.”