Substitute Teachers are a Large Presence in American Schools

June Kronholz
Janice B. Riddell (203) 912-8675, External Relations, Education Next

Substitute Teachers are a Large Presence in American Schools

Regular teacher absences are costly to school budgets and student learning

CAMBRIDGE, MA—According to a 2009-2010 report from the U.S. Department of Education based on data from surveys of 57,000 schools, U.S. teachers take off an average of 9.4 days each or 5% of regular school days, during a typical 180-day school year, and substitute teachers are called to fill in for absent teachers.  This means that the average public school student has substitute teachers for more than six months of his or her school career.  In a new analysis, June Kronholz discusses recent research on teacher absences and the impact that the reliance on substitutes has on school budgets and student learning.  “No Substitute for a Teacher” will appear in the Spring 2013 issue of Education Next and is currently available online at

Kronholz cites findings from the National Council on Teacher Quality’s database on collective-bargaining agreements in 113 large school districts, which show that district contracts give their teachers an average of 13.5 days of sick and personal leave per school year.  Contracts in some cities are far more generous; for example, in Columbus, teachers are granted 20 paid days off; in Boston, 21 days; in Hartford, 25 days; and in Newark, 28 days.  By contrast, private-sector employers offer an average 10 days of time off or 4% of work days during a 260-day work year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Researchers estimate large impacts of teacher absences on student learning.

• Duke researchers Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor found that being taught by a sub for 10 days per year has a larger effect on a child’s math scores than if he’d changed schools, and about half the size of the difference between students from well-to-do and poor families.

• Columbia researchers Mariesa Herrmann and Jonah Rockoff concluded that the effect on learning of using a substitute for even a day is greater than the effect of replacing an average teacher with a terrible one—that is, a teacher in the 10th percentile for math instruction and the 20th percentile in English instruction.

These and other recent studies find that:

• Teachers in bigger schools were absent more often than those in smaller schools

• Teachers in low-income schools were absent more often than those serving higher-income families

• Elementary school teachers took off more time than did those in high schools

• Tenured teachers took off 3.7 more days than did those without tenure

• Female teachers under age 35 averaged 3.2 more absences than did men

• Teachers who had a master’s degree or graduated from a competitive college took less leave then those who didn’t

• Teachers in traditional districts take off more time than those in charters.  37 percent of teachers are absent more than 10 days at district elementary and middle schools compared to 22 percent at charters.

The financial cost of substitute teachers—who are typically paid in the $60 – $100 per day range—is substantial.  Raegen Miller, now vice president of research partnerships at Teach for America, has estimated the cost of substitute teachers at $4 billion annually, or about 1% of total K-12 spending.  In Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, whose 13,000 teachers are offered 11 days off per year, the district budgeted $19 million for substitutes in 2012.  Substitute costs are in addition to the financial burden of guaranteed leave time:  teachers typically are given a lump sum payment for any unused leave when they retire.

Credential requirements for substitutes vary widely.  If a college degree is required, Kronholz writes, it often has no relation to the subjects that a substitute will teach.  Some districts only require substitutes to have a high school diploma or its GED equivalent, since maintaining classroom order is usually the district’s chief concern.

In private schools, the use of substitutes is typically much less, as colleagues fill in for absent teachers during their own non-teaching hours, which “keeps the class on pace when, say, one social-studies teacher can fill in for another.”  Researchers have found that teachers are absent more often when their fellow teachers are, too.  Excessive absenteeism suggests struggling schools, where teacher absences and student absences feed off one another until neither group shows up.  Or it suggests weak management and unhappy workers.  If an organization is effective, people show up.

About the Author

June Kronholz is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a regular contributor to Education Next.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform.  Other collaborating institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  For more information about Education Next, please visit:

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976,, or visit

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