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Improve teaching time

My View • Allow substitutes to use their own lesson plans

Portland Public Schools consistently has one of the shortest academic school years in the nation. This makes school time, always a valuable commodity, all the more precious.

Yet one enormous area of misspent time occurs when students are taught by substitute teachers. Amazingly, the average student will spend the equivalent of a full year of their K-12 education being taught by a substitute.

Substitute teachers are largely viewed as ineffective educators by regular teachers and faculty, and, according to what little research has been done on the subject, they are. It is certainly not fair, however, to blame substitute teachers for this predicament.

We ask our substitute teachers to perform amazing tasks. We ask them to stand in for regular teachers when they are decidedly not regular teachers, most often not experts in the field of subject they are asked to teach, not familiar with the students and school protocols and usually provided with little or no professional development.

In fact, the Portland Public Schools professional development plan for the 2008-09 school year mentions substitute teachers only once, and only in passing.

The behavior of students being taught by a substitute is to be expected. Students often are being asked to do busy work and they know that the work they will be given will amount to little of their final grade and will contain little, if any, stimulating content. Misbehavior is common and actual learning minimal. Valuable school time is wasted.

Yet the low expectations accorded to substitute teachers and the students being taught by them can be reversed by radically altering what we ask of our substitute teachers.

Instead of asking subs to be stand-ins for regular teachers, we, instead, should ask them to be specialists - specialists that develop a handful of exceptional, self-contained, stimulating lessons.

These lessons would have state-based objectives and graded in-class assignments to ensure student comprehension. Lessons would be self-contained, meaning that the lesson potentially could be taught at any point in the school year, would require little, if any, later review, and would not interfere with the regular teacher's long-term planning.

Substitute teachers bring a wide variety of experiences and insight to the classroom, but this is treated as a liability instead of an asset. By asking substitutes to develop their own lesson plans we are allowing them to shape what they are going to teach, draw on their strengths and experiences, and allow them to provide their pupils with a distinctive perspective they wouldn't get from their regular teacher.

Portland Public Schools also should create a modern substitute teacher Web site, where substitute teachers can list the different lessons and state-based objectives they specialize in teaching.

This would ensure that regular teachers are aware of the objectives to be covered by the substitute teacher and also could allow regular teachers to later rate a substitute's performance, providing future teachers in need of a substitute with an indication of a sub's ability.

Having substitute teachers essentially market their lessons on a Web page will help provide more consistent substitute teaching jobs to those teachers who are well organized, deemed effective and whose lessons focus on high-priority objectives.

Portland long has been heralded for its pioneering land use regulations, public transportation system and environmental law. But the recent news that Portland ranked in the middle of that pack when it comes to high school graduation rates confirms that our schools are sliding toward mediocrity.

It is time for Portland Public Schools to develop and execute innovative solutions - and make better use of time itself.

Chris Fick is a Portland native and a graduate of the University of Oregon. He works in Washington, D.C., on education policy. His idea for revamping substitute teaching was recognized by the Pioneer Institute's Better Government Competition.