<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://px.ads.linkedin.com/collect/?pid=2969948&amp;fmt=gif">

Do You Know Your Actual Substitute Fill Rates? You Should, and Here’s How To Improve Them

May 15, 2024   •   Insights

Share ---

The impact of teacher absenteeism on student learning isn’t lost on any district or school administrator. Though not new for schools, this challenge continues to affect many communities. However, when it’s compounded by the ongoing teacher (and substitute) shortage, it increases the stakes for students and their learning journeys.

This is why district admins really need to understand their ACTUAL substitute fill rates and all the nuance they come with. This information is essential for educators to strategically manage absences, attract substitute teachers, and ultimately boost those metrics.

Let’s examine the state of substitute fill rates today and how one district is thoughtfully crafting its substitute engagement strategy through a deep understanding of these essential data.

What do substitute fill rates look like today?

As alluded to earlier, filling absences isn’t a new challenge in K12 education. Substantial Classrooms, a nonprofit that supports substitute teacher training, estimated that in the years before the pandemic, students spent around 10% of instructional time with substitute teachers. Now, however, they estimate that this volume has doubled.

This statistic doesn’t come as a surprise. But COVID didn’t just exacerbate the teacher shortage. Everywhere you looked, the substitute teacher landscape also seemed to worsen. Just two to three months into the 2021–22 school year, EdWeek reported that 77% of principals and district leaders already struggled to hire a sufficient number of substitutes. 

The story continues to this day, with most districts across the U.S. still having a difficult time filling their absences consistently and completely. This pressure calls for a new way to strategically manage fill rates and ensure student learning can keep moving forward when the inevitable arises.

A growing need for new strategies to fill absences

Buncombe County Schools (Asheville, NC) was one of those districts that faced a double shortage of both full-time and substitute staff. During Red Rover’s 2024 Symposium, Assistant HR Director Brian Propst shared how past methods of attracting and retaining substitute teachers were having a heavy impact on their fill rates. 

Let’s break down these strategies and unpack why they may not help — and sometimes even hinder — efforts to fill teacher absences. 

Outdated planning and communication methods

A key roadblock for substitute management lies in outdated strategies used to contact substitute teachers, namely robocalls.

Though once ubiquitous to absence management solutions, this method of reaching out to available substitutes is incredibly inefficient at filling absences, not to mention it is annoying for substitutes themselves. In Buncombe County, less than 1% of absences in the last two years have been successfully filled using robocalls.

Ineffective scheduling and planning tools also make it difficult for districts to improve substitute engagement strategies and therefore fill rates. Multi-day absences in particular can create havoc for substitute management solutions, most of which have rigid rules for how to assign job opportunities to substitute teachers. 

Like many districts, Buncombe County needed greater flexibility with partial fills to ensure an entire multi-day absence was covered. These types of absences were easily the most difficult to fill, with only 45% of multi-day absences successfully filled during the 2022–23 school year. 

We might as well declare the practice of robocalling as officially “dead” along with rigid systems that cannot adapt to meet districts’ absence management needs!

Sparse data availability

To further complicate things, the solutions Buncombe County used to keep track of their substitute pool, how many absences were consistently covered across all campuses, and which substitutes were supporting each job, were cumbersome. The data yielded didn’t give their team the full picture of true substitute utilization

Propst shared, “Though we had some information about overall fill rates across our 24,000 absences and 700+ substitute teacher pool, the team could not see the full picture of what substitute utilization looked like in detail.”

Districts like Buncombe County benefit from having clear information in front of them about the current state of their absence fill rates. Not only can the right data highlight where greater support may be needed to distribute fill rates — but it can also point out stellar substitute teachers covering many absences that the district may want to connect with and engage directly. Relationships and welcoming substitutes as members of a school or district community are among the most important substitute engagement strategies! 

There is a clear and growing need among K12 districts to have better access to the right data at the right depth so they can do right by their substitute teachers. 

Financial incentives

Many of us in the substitute management space may already be familiar with a well-known 2018 experiment conducted by Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The district was previously struggling to attract and retain substitute teaching staff, particularly among their Black-majority schools which historically had extremely low fill rates. They sought a solution to more equitably increase fill rates across these buildings and generally throughout the district.

To incentivize substitute teachers, CPS implemented a targeted bonus program. Remarkably, the researchers monitoring the program found that this incentive substantially improved absence coverage equity across these CPS schools

And — they also hypothesized that, in this specific community, substitute teacher wages would need to increase by at least 50% to close fill-rate gaps. Further, the researchers acknowledged, “As for substitute teacher preferences, however, Chicago substitute teachers preferred shorter commute times and a safe working environment over a possible 27-percent wage premium.” 

Though the findings of this study underscore an important gap in adequate pay for substitute teachers, for many districts, a 50% increase in financial offerings for substitutes may not be within reach. Even if the budget was available, the results here indicate that it may not be enough to keep substitutes interested. 

More recent data supports this concern. Red Rover’s 2023 Substitute Teacher Survey revealed that “pay” was only fourth in importance for most substitutes. The top three considerations for a substitute teaching opportunity were flexibility, control over their schedules, and “feeling like they are making a difference” in the classroom.

Though financial incentives sometimes have a place in attracting and engaging substitutes, it’s not always the best solution. 

5 things that actually make a difference in boosting fill rates

So what does the future of absence management look like? Which strategies should replace these ineffective and outdated approaches?

Propst and his team switched to a modern K12 workplace management solution in the summer of 2023. In just the first year, the move drastically changed their substitute management strategy — for the better. In the 2023-24 school year alone, the district has already experienced over a 10% increase in their fill rates across 24 school campuses!

Here are five key factors driving this success in Buncombe County and hundreds of districts and schools across the U.S.

#1 - Analytics

One of the key benefits of utilizing Red Rover’s absence management solution is the robust analytics it includes. For Propst, this data was a game changer for bolstering substitute engagement.

His team runs the “Substitute Pool Health Report” at least quarterly, keen to answer questions like:

  • Which of our 700+ substitutes are filling absences consistently? 
  • Which substitutes have not worked at all in the last quarter?
  • How many absences has each substitute filled? Are there any stand-out teachers filling 30 or more absences?

Propst underscored the importance of having data to truly connect with their substitutes: “Substitute engagement is important… we want to make sure that we are checking in with our subs and keeping [them] happy!” His team uses this information to reach out and celebrate those substitutes who are giving their district extra support and love, highlighting their impact and that they are part of the Buncombe community.

#2 - Simplicity and Flexibility Over Complexity

Most of our partners are immediately impressed with the flexibility available within Red Rover. For Buncombe County, the first area directly impacted by flexibility was those unfilled multi-day absences. When partial fills became an option for covering multi-day absences, the district saw multi-day fill rates jump from 45% to 80% in just one school year.

Another boon to Buncombe County lay in managing its entire absence approval system. Before switching to a modernized absence management solution, the district was still using faxes to complete a relatively basic approval process that covers most of the simple absences. This process was easily migrated into Red Rover and then expanded upon to handle more nuances and edge cases that crop up within any absence approval workflow.

Within Red Rover, Propst’s team easily built a full ecosystem of approval workflows, with various dependencies and if/then statements to ensure that even unusual absence requests followed the district’s protocols and board policies. Better still, the team could test each new iteration of the workflow to verify the process makes sense before launching it to all staff members. 

The kicker? This system was designed, tested, and launched in minutes — not weeks.

#3 - Interoperability

This element is essential to a modernized K12 solution but is especially important for connecting core HR processes. 

Red Rover’s interoperability with tools like LINQ, Kronos, and UKG Ready — just to name a few of the many supported — has helped Buncombe County more seamlessly manage time off balances and tracking. Per Propst, “Our team saves a ton of time because our [teaching] staff know exactly how much time off they have available.”

Buncombe County loads data from its payroll system into Red Rover monthly. If a teacher requests hours off for personal leave but doesn’t have that number available, they automatically get a message alerting them to exceeding the allotted balance available. Additionally, administrators can see on any given day the number of staff members who are scheduled for or have requested time off. 

Both of these layers of visibility ensure that there is an even distribution of absences and that teachers are using – but not exceeding — their time off. And all of this is possible thanks to Red Rover’s commitment and action to support interoperability.

#4 - Real-Time Communication

A stand-out tool from Red Rover is its free mobile app, which substitutes use to receive real-time alerts or review information about available absence coverage opportunities, changes to assigned jobs, and details for upcoming jobs in advance. 

On top of the app, Buncombe County found that the bulletin board feature for administrators within Red Rover was just as essential. 

Leadership utilizes the bulletin board to regularly push broader announcements to their staff. They can customize to which audience they wish to send a particular message and even whether that audience must acknowledge if critical messages were received. From notifying teachers of a delayed start due to inclement weather to reminders about health benefits enrollment windows and more, Propst’s team centralizes and simplifies how they communicate across the district. 

“[Red Rover] is useful as a [communication] tool, too, especially because all Buncombe County employees use Red Rover,” said Propst.

#5 - A Delightful User Experience

All of these factors ultimately fold into a more delightful experience of absence management and substitute teachers for everyone involved. User delight comes in many forms and places in the Red Rover ecosystem. 

For instance, the Red Rover app supports substitute teachers to set their availability, communication preferences, and even favorite sites within the app, making it much easier for substitutes to manage their gigs. For administrators, the seamless integration between Red Rover and LINQ saves immense time and effort while reducing errors in absence reporting and coding. For teachers, the Classroom and School Profiles ensure that any substitute filling for their absences is well prepared with lesson plans and basic information about the school before the job starts.

But the real win is in empowering district teams with time back and modern tools that allow them to cultivate positive relationships with their substitute teachers. For Propst, this substitute experience and engagement make all the difference in boosting fill rates.

Discover why Red Rover customers experience higher substitute fill rates and satisfaction

Red Rover has modernized absence management, substitute management, and more in more than one thousand schools and districts across the U.S. — and we’re not done yet!

It’s our mission to make the lives of educational professionals simpler, so you can focus on the work that matters most. Request a demo or explore our most recent success stories to discover how our modern K12 workplace management solutions can help you boost your fill rates and make real progress in human capital management.

Don't Miss a Thing

Subscribe to get the latest Red Rover news and insights delivered straight to your inbox.