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Beyond BLS

Beyond BLS briefly summarizes articles, reports, working papers, and other works published outside BLS on broad topics of interest to MLR readers.

January 2023

Substitute teachers needed: closing the gap on supply versus demand

Summary written by: John C. Roach

Can America solve the severe shortage of substitute teachers? Each year in the United States, close to 600 thousand substitute teachers cover over 30 million teacher absences in K–12 schools. In addition, a substitute teacher’s preference, such as wages, locations, and a safe working environment can affect students’ learning opportunities. In “Preferences, inequities, and incentives in the substitute teacher labor market” (National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 30714, December 2022), authors Matthew. A. Kraft, Megan Lane Conklin, and Grace T. Falken analyze the substitute teacher labor supply market.

Traditionally, demand has exceeded supply for substitute teachers at current wages. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, substitute teacher shortages have increase to the level that 20 percent of requests for substitutes are unfilled. Unfilled teacher absences can cripple student achievement. Schools struggle to fill these teacher absences by moving students to other classes, pulling in other school personnel to cover for the absent teacher, or moving students to the gym, cafeteria, or library, with little to no supervision.

The authors examined labor supply decisions of substitute teachers in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. In particular, they explored the potential of the wage premium structure in reducing the disparity in the substitute fill rate between the top and bottom quintile schools. The fill rate of bottom quintile schools in the CPS averaged 50 percent, compared with over 95 percent of the rate for top quintile schools.

To address this disparity in fill rates, the CPS collaborated with the authors’ research team and designed a bonus-pay program for substitute teacher requests for 75 schools with the lowest historical fill rates in their district. The authors found that this program resulted in a 23-percent increase in substitute fill rates for the incentive schools. In addition, a school-wide increase occurred in academic achievement. The authors’ findings show several avenues to reducing the substitute teacher shortage in the CPS and other urban school districts, such as offering differential pay, improving substitute teacher training, and improving working conditions.

 As for substitute teacher preferences, however, Chicago substitute teachers preferred shorter commute times and a safe working environment over a possible 27-percent wage premium.