Teacher shortage threatens to stall students' education
Arizona Republic
Jan. 7, 2008

Pat Kossan

A classroom of first-graders at Hamilton Elementary School in Phoenix lost its teacher shortly after she was hired. So the principal called in a substitute.

Then she called another. And still another.

"I'd guess that we've had 10-12 substitutes in there," Principal Mishay Tribble said. "One would come and stay two days. The next one would come and stay three days." One was sent home after he came onto campus reeking of booze, she said.

Arizona's teacher shortage is threatening the education of hundreds of children. In many schools, children spend a semester or an entire school year trying to learn from a string of substitute teachers, each with different rules and different skills. Children fail to create a relationship with one teacher or a community with their classmates. Kids can lose interest in going to school, and their learning can stagnate or slide backward, educators warn.

No one tracks the number of hours or days students statewide spend with substitutes instead of regular teachers. Evidence of the problem is found in formal appeals some K-12 schools file each year to the Arizona Department of Education to improve their "failing" or "underperforming" labels. The state received 117 appeals for the 2006-07 school year, and each school explained why its students had poor test scores or low graduation rates. Nearly one in three of those schools told stories about students who spent at least part of their year with substitute teachers.

A sixth-grade class at Phoenix's Cesar E. Chavez Community School lost its regular and experienced teacher to illness early in the 2006-07 school year. The kids spent three continuous months with substitutes or teaching assistants. Only 3 percent passed the 2007 Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards reading test. In 2006, when the teacher was healthy and in the classroom every day, 87 percent of his students passed the reading test.

A fourth-grade teacher at Tucson's Cavett Elementary School left shortly after the school year began. Two short-term substitute teachers covered the class before a long-term, but underqualified, substitute teacher was hired. None of the students in the class passed the spring 2007 AIMS reading test.

"People often hear the discussion of the teacher shortage without necessarily recognizing the dire situation," said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association.

Substitute numbers slip

Arizona's teacher shortage makes it easier for licensed teachers to find the jobs they want, where they want them. That means there are fewer licensed teachers in the substitute pool looking for permanent jobs.

The most sought after substitutes in Arizona are retired teachers or those who have left the profession. Other substitutes have little or no teaching experience or training. Few want to answer calls from schools in poor neighborhoods or far from their homes.

The need is so dire, particularly in poor inner-city and rural schools, that the state allows people without college degrees to get emergency substitute certificates and fill in the gaps.

Hamilton's principal was relieved when retired teacher Judith Woods finally agreed to take over her first-grade class the first week in December and stay until Christmas break.

Woods reported that the students were still on their first-level math workbook. The other three first-grade classes had nearly finished their third-level workbook.

"You know, I'm no miracle worker," said Woods, 72. Kids in this class have trailed the other first-graders in every reading and math test since school began in August.

Low-income struggle

Parents in the schools most likely to turn to substitutes for teaching help are in low-income neighborhoods, where families are struggling to survive. Unlike parents in wealthier communities, these mothers and fathers have neither the time nor the inclination to police the neighborhood school.

Olga Payan volunteers on the Hamilton campus. Her son, Edwin, 6, is in the first-grade class that has been taught by a string of substitutes. Payan had a good relationship with the original licensed teacher before she left. If Edwin had a problem, that teacher talked to him about it and sent notes home. Together, Payan and the teacher would resolve the problem.

Now, things are different. Edwin's problems are escalating, Payan said.

Recently, she had to talk to a substitute teacher about her son. She was not satisfied, and there was no resolution.

"I only want to talk to one, only one," said Payan, who spoke through an interpreter because she is more comfortable speaking in Spanish. "Kids don't want to come (to school) because of all the different teachers."

Small paychecks

Hamilton Elementary can offer a new teacher $34,000 a year. That is $2,000 more than the school's new teachers made last year.

Low teacher salaries contribute to Arizona's shortage and the weakness of its substitute-teacher pool, said Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction.

"We lose many, many great teachers who find they can make more money in other occupations and who can't afford to make the sacrifice," Horne said.

Finding teachers and substitutes is tough for Hamilton, which serves mostly families living in poverty. It sits along the Interstate 17 frontage road at 19th Avenue. Principal Tribble fights to find and keep any teacher willing to teach over the roar of freeway traffic and adjust to the stench of a nearby wastewater-treatment plant. She needs teachers who can work with children who demand more one-on-one attention to reach grade level.

When there is an unfilled opening, Tribble must choose between using a substitute and giving a licensed teacher 35 or 40 students. At a school such as Hamilton, that number of kids in one class reduces teaching to "crowd control," she said. Usually, Tribble opts for a substitute.

"So substitutes are welcome, but on a long-term basis, it does more harm than good," she said. "And therein lies the problem with underperforming."

Failing federal standards

The state labeled Hamilton "underperforming" for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years. Last year, Tribble's first as principal, the school earned a "performing" label. It continues to fail tougher federal standards. Both are based on AIMS test results. These labels make it harder to recruit and retain good teachers, creating a cycle of failure.

Tribble pushes her teachers and substitutes to regularly monitor students' progress and change lesson plans if testing shows children are not learning. Tribble helps teachers and substitutes redesign lesson plans, and she assigns them to attend meetings and go to training sessions. Some of her teachers balk because, unlike other schools, she can't pay them for the extra hours. Her substitutes often ignore her.

Next semester, Tribble plans to place all of her first-graders into the three classrooms with licensed teachers.

That doesn't mean another classroom won't suddenly need a long-term substitute teacher. Tribble sees no end to the struggle to find and train adequate substitute teachers.

"If we want a performing label, if we want to make sure the students are learning, what is it we can do?" Tribble said. "It's the equivalent of trying to win a Super Bowl with rookies."