Michigan Short of Substitute Teachers, New Research Finds

Oct 31, 2019

Michigan is experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers in districts small and large, urban and rural, leaving school district superintendents unable to fill temporarily vacant positions several times a schoolweek, new research conducted at Michigan State University concludes.


More than 60 percent of school superintendents questioned said they had to move students between classrooms, ask adminstrators to handle classes or pull instructors of specialized students into less familiar duties.

“All of those have a very disruptive effect on the schools,” said Nathan Burroughs, Ph.D., lead investigator, a senior research associate in the MSU College of Education’s Center for the Study of Curriculum and with Public Policy Associates in Lansing.

He was joined in the survey and focus group research by Jacqueline Gardner, director of Data and Evaluation in the College of Education’s Office of K-12 Outreach, and Dirk Zuschlag, doctoral candidate in MSU’s College of Education.

Credit Cindy Kyle | IPPSR MSU

The team’s research also found that the number of people available to perform substitute teaching duties has declined in the face of a demand for them. “The real difficulty appeared to be in the supply,” Burroughs said.

Schools across the state seemed to be short of people willing to take on classroom duties, he added.

“It's a statewide problem. It's more severe in some areas, or kinds of schools, than others, but every region of the state and every kind of school reported having roughly the same kind of problem.”

The research is detailed in a paper published by MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Institute (IPPSR) through a Michigan Applied Public Policy Research grant.

The research was discussed in the latest State of the State podcast, hosted by IPPSR Director Matt Grossmann, Associate Director Arnold Weinfeld and MSU economist Charles Ballard. Ballard directs IPPSR’s State of the State Survey, Michigan’s only phone research tapping statewide attitudes and opinions on a regular basis.

Substitute teachers have typically come from the ranks of retired teachers and from those who are seeking full-time teaching positions, Burroughs said. However, changes to state retirement laws make it more difficult to attract retired classroom professionals and the state’s population of those seeking teaching posts has declined, he said.

“We just don't have this huge glut of people wanting to go into teaching in Michigan anymore. So we're going to really have to come to grips with that,” Burroughs observed.

The research also recommended:

  • Redrafting laws to encourage retired teachers to seek out substitute positions.
  • Investigating opportunities, despite tight budgets, to create a pool of permanent substitutes available at certain times from which to deploy to classrooms where a teacher is needed.
  • Reviewing private organization efforts to hire substitute teachers.
  • Conducting research to learn more about the effects of learning environments and outcomes under substitute classroom management.

Though research is limited, students whose teacher is absent from the classroom more days tend not to do well on standardized tests, he said, especially if the absence is immediately before a test.

“What we don't know a lot about is, is it just the fact that the teacher's out of the classroom that's having a negative effect? Could you have higher quality substitutes? We really don't know for sure,” he said during the broadcast.

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