Call it continuous improvement, process improvement, improvement science, or rapid learning, but the idea of getting better at getting better is on everyone’s mind right now. A great place to start doing process improvement in your district is the substitute teacher office.
Opportunity for impact: One elementary school with 18 teachers places (on average) 180 substitute teacher requests in a year (10 absent days per teacher). If 30 percent go unfilled, that’s 54 days with no teacher. Schools often split up these classes and distribute the kids to other teachers. The impact of 54 unfilled sub requests can actually represent 4,050 student learning days disrupted each year. At one school! Multiply this district-wide and you’ll understand the potential impact of improving the substitute teaching system.
It’s an island: This is one of the most discrete functions in a school district. It is typically managed by one or two people, often flies under the radar, and isn’t a place where there is usually interdepartmental confusion over ownership. That’s rare to find in a function that so directly impacts students.
Clear and measurable definition of better: This is one of few areas where there isn’t much controversy about what better means—it almost always means “higher fill rate,” or the percentage of times that a substitute teacher shows up when a school requests one. Nothing builds the confidence of teams beginning process improvement like seeing progress on a clear metric for success.
Ability to do rapid iterations: Schools need subs every day, so every day you have the opportunity to pilot something, see how it worked, make adjustments, and try again. You get concrete performance data every single day. The sub system is a place where you can truly learn the power of rapid improvement cycles.
Five Steps to Improvement
Here are a few concrete steps you can take to get started. In the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), following these steps over two years helped us improve our fill rate to 93 percent (up from 67 percent) and created a proof point for process improvement in our district.
1. Create a team: I know this might sound basic, but I am surprised how often people skip this step. At OUSD, we created a small working team with a process improvement project manager (that was me), the substitute office manager, and a retired principal. We also established an advisory team that included substitutes, a union leader, a school site office manager, and two current principals.
Make the project visible and be explicit about learning. If you want people to learn a new toolkit for solving problems—how to get better at getting better—you need to be explicit about it. In our project, we were asked to give updates to the central office leadership team every few months about both what we were doing and what we were learning about process improvement.
2. Get out of the building: Once you’ve got your team in place, your first job is to learn about the substitute system from the point of view of those who live it every day—substitutes, school office managers, teachers, and principals. Nothing accelerates learning and gets your creative juices going like getting out and talking to people. This experience can be transformative for central office teams because their jobs often isolate them from the people who rely on the systems they manage.
3. Dig into your data: The most important place to start is to disaggregate your fill rate by school site. We started with an overall fill rate of 67 percent but found that we had huge variation across the city. We identified 16 school sites that had fill rates below 50 percent—take a moment to think about what that means for the instructional program at those campuses!—and about the same number with fill rates over 90 percent. Figuring out what these high fill rate sites were doing and trying to take those practices to the low fill rate sites was a big part of our project.
4. Make a problem map: Don’t get bogged down in root cause analysis; this step is about writing down the areas you are going to explore. Ours was pretty simple and evolved over the course of the project. Initially we looked at infrastructure (getting our online sub system working better), demand (teacher absentee patterns), and supply (how substitutes were recruited, interviewed, and hired).
5. Now experiment: Decide on a few things to experiment with and try them out. Start simple and low-tech—think of something you can mock up in an afternoon. Test it out, see what you learn, and build from there. Make sure to decide up front how you will measure whether your change had the impact you expected, and ensure that you can easily get your hands on the data. Let that data guide your work as you refine and iterate.
Be aware that you will likely need to do some work to strengthen the systems that support the sub office. For example, our data systems weren’t connected, so when a teacher changed school sites, the sub system often sent substitutes to the wrong school. This less glamorous systems work is essential—without good systems you can’t make sustainable change.
It’s time to take another look at this quiet corner in your HR department. Why not start today?