Credentialing commission considers slowing rotation of substitute teachers

February 8, 2016
teacher with students

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing this week will consider whether to create a new teaching permit in place of a decades-old permit that limits the amount of time substitutes can fill in for teachers on medical and other legally required leave.

The time limits expose students unnecessarily to a string of rotating substitute teachers, which educators have long complained interrupts classroom instruction and exposes students to  instructors with a range of teaching styles and with varying levels of competence and expertise.

The issue is attracting additional attention because school districts throughout California are increasingly having to rely on substitute teachers without full credentials to blunt the impact of a growing teacher shortage in almost every subject area.

But that strategy has been complicated by an “Emergency 30 Day Substitute Teaching Permit” created by the credentialing commission more than three decades ago that says substitutes who fill in for teachers who are out for medical reasons or other longer term leaves can spend no more than 30 cumulative school days – or approximately six weeks – in one classroom.

The limits are even more stringent in special education classes, where substitute teachers can’t spend more than 20 cumulative days in one classroom.

Since the emergency substitute permit limiting a substitute’s time was introduced, the number of teachers on extended leave has increased as more laws allowing teachers to take such leaves – known as “statutory leaves” – have been approved by the state Legislature. These include the Pregnancy Disability Leave Act, which allows teachers to take off for up to four months. The Family and Medical Leave Act, the California Family Rights Act and the Industrial Accident and Illness Act also allow them to take a leave of up to 12 weeks.

With such long leave periods, substitutes in many cases are needed for far more than the current 20- or 30-day limit.

“The current solutions available to employers for appropriately covering such leaves, which can extend up to five calendar months, do not best serve California’s students,” notes a memo written by commission staff for the commission’s meeting in Sacramento on Thursday.

Even if the substitute does not have a full teaching credential, the substitute may be doing a good job, often under difficult circumstances. But a district has no choice but to replace him or her with a series of new and untested substitute teachers, who may not know the students and must familiarize themselves afresh with the teaching materials.

Strategies like these “undermine students’ access to quality instruction,” asserted a report by the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization in Palo Alto. The principal author of the report is Linda Darling-Hammond, the institute’s president, who is also chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

To tackle the problem, the commission will consider an action item at its Thursday meeting that would create a new “Teaching Permit for Statutory Leave” to allow substitutes to stay in their positions as long as the regular teachers are on “statutory” leave, if necessary for as long as a year. The permits would also be renewable.

According to the commission memo recommending adoption of the proposal, the new permit is intended to provide a “consistent and stable learning environment” for students, and “eliminate the need for rotating through several substitute teachers.”

“It’s definitely not an option to fill your regular teaching vacancies,” cautioned Charlie Watters, the commission’s director of certification. “This will present districts with an option of having one trained person in the classroom for the duration of a teacher of record’s leave.”

Andrew Lucia, assistant superintendent for human resources at the Santa Clara Unified School District in the South Bay Area, said being able to keep substitutes longer would benefit students. “It will allow for more continuity for the students to have the same person instructing them without having a rotating wheel of subs coming in every 30 days,” he said.

He noted that of 900 teachers in his district on any particular day, 70 to 90 were substitutes for teachers out on statutory leave, with a full-time staffer devoted to managing their assignments.

The problem has been further exacerbated by a shortage of substitutes in many districts. In those cases, after the substitute’s 20-day or 30-day stint is over, districts must scramble to find another one to replace him or her.

The issue is affecting large numbers of school districts. Four out of five respondents to a commission survey of more than 750 school districts and county offices of education conducted last fall said the impact on students of replacing substitutes after 20 or 30 days was “substantial.” Only 2 percent said the impact of having to rotate substitutes was “minimal” or “not an issue.”

The impact on special education students was especially severe, as these students typically need the most stability and continuity in their classroom environments.

One survey respondent from a district that serves a large number of autistic children said those students “are simply not able to cope with change, so forcing our district to rotate substitutes is devastating to them.”

The new permit being considered by the credentialing commission would require a substitute teacher to go through an orientation and preparation program of at least 45 hours, and also to receive guidance from a “mentor teacher.”

Even in districts not facing a teacher shortage, the time limits on how long a substitute can be in the classroom create problems. “It’s almost like you have to go through the whole drama once again: let’s find someone, let’s acclimate them to the school site, and let’s make sure the kids and the parents are on board,” said Robert Verdi, assistant superintendent of human resources at the Moreno Valley Unified School District in Southern California.

The stakes are high, he said. “It creates an inconsistency in that classroom and that student’s environment and that usually doesn’t bode well for student achievement,” Verdi said.

Teachers unions have traditionally backed the 30-day limit on substitutes in order to ensure that school districts don’t use them to avoid hiring full-time, fully credentialed teachers. Watters said that the commission would address those concerns by limiting the new permit just to teachers on statutory leave.

Among the many permits and credentials that exist in the maze of California’s complex teacher credentialing system, two permits do exist that allow districts to fill teacher vacancies for up to a year with long-term substitutes. These are known as Provisional Internship Permits (PIP) or Short-Term Staff Permits (STSP) and can only be used to fill truly vacant teacher positions, not ones when the teacher is on temporary leave.

And when a position is vacant, districts must show that they have made an effort to recruit a fully credentialed teacher before they can hire a substitute for a year.

But as the memo to the commission describing the new permit noted, those requirements are not consistent with the gaps left by teachers on statutory leaves, who often have to take a leave as result of an emergency or unexpected family situation. Those leaves are often “spontaneous in nature and may begin or end with little or no notice,” commission staff noted. That means that districts don’t have time to do the outside recruiting required under the Provisional Internship and Short Term Staff permits.

The commission’s Watters pointed out that it is not often that a new teaching permit is introduced in California. He hoped this one would attract more substitutes to the classroom because of the prospect of longer term, more stable employment. It would also save districts the time and cost of constantly having to replace substitutes, at least in some classrooms. “It will be good for students and for employers,” he said.

EdSource staff contributed to this story.

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