General Education

Philadelphia’s Trouble with Outsourcing Substitute Teachers

Philadelphia’s Trouble with Outsourcing Substitute Teachers
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Carrie Hagen profile
Carrie Hagen January 27, 2016

The School District of Philadelphia has outsourced substitute teaching services to a private company to cut costs, but still struggles to fill absentee openings. Learn why this deal isn’t helping kids get a better education.

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It seemed like an easy way to save money.

At the end of the 2014–2015 school year, the cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia announced that it would outsource substitute-teaching services to a private company, Source4Teachers. The two-year, $34 million deal would save the city $2 million and make it the largest urban district in the nation to outsource subs — a decision affecting approximately 130,000 students and 8,443 full-time teachers.

The learning curve would be steeper than anyone anticipated.

Why Schools Use Staffing Services

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just under five percent of substitute teachers worked directly for a staffing service as of May 2014. Though more current figures are not yet available, anecdotal evidence suggests that the reach of companies like Kelly Educational Staffing (KES) and Source4Teachers is growing.

The practice is not a new one — educational staffing companies have placed substitutes in classrooms for more than a decade — but it has drawn increasing attention in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. Instead of providing benefits for employees who work 35 hours or more a week, school districts can save on expenses by hiring outside agencies to employ substitutes.

Scott Apsey, a vice president and spokesperson for KES, says that the “growth of the industry is showing that districts are finding value in it." KES, part of Kelly Services, a temporary-help agency that has been in business since 1946, has contracted with schools since 1997; currently, it has relationships with more than 6,100 schools across 35 states.

How Staffing Services Work

Apsey says that supplying teachers is only part of a service that also involves “recruitment, training, scheduling, payroll, disciplinary action, and data analytics." To attract teachers, KES uses district-specific data to formulate “a very targeted recruiting plan." The company’s plans differ based upon locale because qualifications vary from state to state: Pennsylvania, for example, requires potential subs to hold a college degree and teaching certificate; Virginia requires a high school diploma.

When Services Fall Short

But simply amassing a pool of teachers doesn’t guarantee that a staffing agency will be able to meet a district’s needs. In a district of 10,000 teachers (one slightly larger than Philadelphia’s), 10 percent might be absent on any given day, says Apsey. Ten percent may seem like a small proportion, but in real numbers, it translates to a thousand absent teachers — and the need for alternate instructors for all of their classes. While KES’s goal would be to have 500–1,000 substitutes ready to go, subs themselves might not show up for work for any number of reasons.

“Having enough folks is part of the issue. Participation is more important," Apsey reflects. To troubleshoot substitute shortages, KES analyzes absentee patterns in participating districts, offers incentives to its employees, and uses an online training program to cover “things like understanding responsibilities, qualities for reliability, the ethics of teaching, and responsibilities around mandated reporting."

How Problems Arise in Practice

Last year, the School District of Philadelphia filled 64 percent of teacher absences with its in-house pool of substitutes, paying certified teachers $75 a day for their first 22 days of work and $160 beyond that. Retired teachers could make even more — up to $242.83 a day.

Still, there were three key problems that emerged.

# 1. Staffing services may not pay teachers as much as school districts.

Source4Teachers, based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, said it could increase the fill rate from 64 to 75 percent by the start of the school year and 90 percent by January of 2016. It would pay certified teachers (including retired ones) between $90 and $110 a day, a fee considered the market rate for substitutes.

On the first day of school in 2015, however, Source4Teachers filled just 11 percent of all of its open absentee positions — leaving 477 classrooms without substitutes. Staffing services like Source4Teachers are thus in an uncomfortable position: They have to be cost-effective (or else districts wouldn’t engage them), but not to such an extent that they can’t fill absentee positions (or, again, districts wouldn’t engage them).

# 2. Many substitutes aren’t specialized.

Lisa Blum, a veteran horticulture teacher at W.B. Saul High School, an agricultural magnet school in northwest Philadelphia, volunteers to coordinate coverage when absent teachers do not have substitutes — either because subs are unavailable or because they are underqualified.

“In October and November," she says, “we were giving people so many coverages a week that they couldn’t do a lot of what they have to get done." In addition to performing their academic duties, teachers at Saul, a vocational high school also have to run facilities like greenhouses. This is something not many subs are trained to do.

# 3. Staffing services may not coordinate well with school districts.

Owen Murphy, vice president of marketing at Source4Teachers, says the group “acknowledges that we had a slow start." This staffing service is smaller than KES; founded in 2000, it works in four states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Virginia — and supplies substitutes to 200 districts, Philadelphia’s being the largest.

When Source4Teachers took responsibility for Philadelphia’s subs, the district handed over a list of instructors it had worked with, which the agency calls “district originals." The Philadelphia Inquirer{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } reported that of the 1,100 names on the list, only 600 re-entered the pool run by Source4Teachers.

Karen Thomas, a principal at Bodine High School for International Affairs, has worked in education for 21 years. “As administrators, we want the jobs to be filled with competent people," she says. For much of her career, she has relied on retired teachers to return to the classroom as substitutes: “We have people who love to come here."

The problem with Source4Teachers, she says, was that “they didn’t recruit enough," and they didn’t pay enough. Many retirees didn’t want to re-enter a new system that cut their daily pay by half.

Murphy, of Source4Teachers, says the problem is that Philadelphia has “a tremendous amount of teacher absences" that offer a series of challenges that “anyone would have inherited."

And, as noted, had Source4Teachers not offered an economical solution to Philadelphia’s substitute-teacher problem, the city likely would not have worked with the staffing service in the first place.

Good Signs for the Future

Blum and Thomas say that the situation has improved in recent weeks, as Source4Teachers has processed hundreds of additional applications and agreed to raise pay for subs. In November, the district amended its contract with the agency, reassuming the responsibility of hiring long-term substitute teachers.

Since mid-December 2015, Blum says about half of her school’s absentee needs have been more regularly met. She disagrees, though, that teachers are to blame for the problem.

At her school, she says, most absences “are school-related," such as when classes take college trips, set up for the Philadelphia Flower Show, or participate in a national agricultural fair in State College, Pennsylvania.

For Thomas, the problem is larger than whether more jobs will become filled. “The bigger concern is that no matter what happens now, what’s the long-term harm?" she asks. “Who is going to want to teach in Philadelphia?"

Blum agrees. “This whole thing has such a ripple effect. Are kids getting consistent anything when there are so many different teachers in their classrooms?"

As magnets, Bodine and Saul High Schools have solid reputations. Although they have struggled to get subs into their classrooms, they have had much more success in attracting these short-term teachers than public schools in less desirable neighborhoods.

Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite has said that a large piece of the problem has been the unwillingness of substitutes to take jobs in certain schools and neighborhoods where they fear for their safety.

Owen Murphy is confident that more employees will help Source4Teachers come closer to their goals in Philadelphia. Both he and Scott Apsey of KES say that working for companies like theirs offers new teachers a host of opportunities — and as many hours of work as they like.

“Many of our subs will end up taking full-time jobs with districts," says Murphy. After leaving college, candidates can use these agencies to “get to know local principals, get to know what they look for in a district, what grade levels they prefer, and be in a better position when jobs open up."

Both KES and Source4Teachers are in the process of expanding their service areas; Source4Teachers hopes to launch in the Carolinas and Florida, and KES, largely based on the eastern seaboard, plans to expand into additional states, as well.

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