Governor DeWine’s budget recommendations are out, and they tackle a host of education issues. Thus far, his proposals for expanding school choice, improving early literacy, and investing in career and technical education have grabbed most of the headlines. But buried amidst all those provisions is an interesting idea that could help address some of Ohio’s teacher shortage issues.
The governor has charged the state board of education with establishing standards and requirements for a new pre-service teacher permit. Teacher candidates enrolled in Ohio’s educator preparation programs would be required to obtain this permit before they could participate in student teaching or other training experiences that involve students in any grade level at any public or chartered nonpublic school. As part of the permit application process, pre-service teachers would be subject to a criminal records check, which the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) would then use to enroll the applicant into the fingerprint database (just like they do with licensed teachers). Permits are valid for three years, but ODE can extend that duration on a case-by-case basis.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Districts and schools would be allowed to employ anyone who holds one of these permits as a substitute teacher. Permit-holders could teach for up to the equivalent of one full semester, but district superintendents and school administrators could request that their board approve “one or more additional subsequent semester-long periods of teaching.” Teachers who substitute using a pre-service permit can also be paid. In short, this permit would allow candidates in educator preparation programs to serve as substitutes, something that is not permissible under current state law, which requires substitute teachers to have a postsecondary degree (pandemic-driven flexibilities that serve as workarounds to this requirement will expire in 2024). This would, in turn, increase not just the number of substitute teachers that schools can hire, but also the quality.
To understand why this could be a gamechanger, some context is needed. Over the last few years, many Ohio districts and schools have been grappling with a teacher shortage. But despite all the headlines, it’s hard to get a pulse on the full scope of the problem. Teacher staffing concerns are highly localized, and the state doesn’t collect and maintain statewide data on teacher vacancies in a single, easily accessible place. Without this information, it’s hard to understand the breadth and depth of the issue. It’s also difficult to determine the kind of teacher shortage schools are facing. In some places, “teacher shortage” is a term that includes substitutes, who are a crucial part of day-to-day operations even if they aren’t an official part of staff. Teachers might do heroic work, but they aren’t superheroes. They get sick, they have family emergencies, and they burn out. To serve kids well, schools need an effective substitute system with a decent supply of teachers.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many schools. In fact, headlines from the last few years indicate that Ohio’s most significant teacher shortage might actually be with substitutes, not full-time staff. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as it’s long been hard to find good substitute teachers. It’s a difficult job that doesn’t pay well, and it’s temporary by nature. The pandemic and the ever-shifting job market have only exacerbated existing problems. Disadvantaged schools have systematically lower substitute coverage rates, which means they’re being hit hardest. And Ohio isn’t a unique case. Last year, a piece in The Atlantic argued that America is desperate for substitute teachers. A few months later, NPR covered a story about schools in Illinois that were holding one-day trainings just to get short-term subs into classrooms.
National coverage like this can be disheartening, but it also means that more people are focused on solving the problem. Last spring, Dan Goldhaber and Sydney Payne published a piece in Education Week that proposed an innovative solution to the substitute teacher crisis that might sound familiar: allowing student teachers to serve as substitutes. They argued that doing so would be a win for everyone involved. Obviously, it would help districts staff classrooms who had absent teachers. But these substitutes wouldn’t just be warm bodies charged with pressing play on movies, assigning busy work, or monitoring students during an impromptu study hall. They would be prospective teachers with some of the knowledge, skills, and training needed to run a classroom. As substitutes, student teachers could “turn idle time into learning time,” which would be beneficial not just for the school, but for students, as well.
The challenge with such an idea, Goldhaber and Payne write, is that state and local bureaucracies get in the way. Well-intentioned rules about who can substitute teach and whether they need to be licensed can keep student teachers out of the classroom. But if Governor DeWine’s version of a pre-service teacher permit becomes law, bureaucratic regulations won’t get in the way. Schools across the state, many of which already have relationships with teacher preparation programs thanks to student teaching requirements, could simply offer teacher candidates the opportunity to get paid and obtain additional classroom experience by substitute teaching.
Obviously, this won’t solve all of Ohio’s substitute teacher staffing woes. But it would help. Schools could immediately bolster their substitute teacher pipelines. In doing so, they could avoid asking teachers to use their planning or lunch periods to cover absent colleagues’ classrooms—a common practice that can contribute to teacher burnout. Student teachers would benefit from the additional experience and income. Students could benefit from a substitute teacher who is familiar with state standards, curricula, and up-to-date instructional strategies. Districts could even collaborate with teacher preparation programs to use pre-service permits as a jumping off point for creating teacher apprenticeship programs, like those in Tennessee. All things considered, there’s a lot to like about this proposal. Here’s hoping that legislators approve it.