Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Problem of Out-of-Field Teaching

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Problem of Out-of-Field Teaching

Article excerpt

The real cause of the problem of out-of-field teaching, in Mr. Ingersoll's view, is U.S. society's lack of respect for the complexity and importance of the job.

Few issues in our elementary and secondary schools are subject to more debate and discussion than the quality of teachers. Over the past decade, dozens of studies, commissions, and national reports have bemoaned our failure to ensure that all our nation's classrooms are staffed with qualified teachers. In turn, reformers in many states have pushed tougher licensing standards for teachers and more rigorous academic requirements for teaching candidates. Moreover, a whole host of initiatives and programs have sprung up for the purpose of recruiting new candidates into teaching. Among these are programs designed to entice midcareer professionals from other fields to become teachers; alternative certification programs, whereby college graduates can postpone formal education training, obtain an emergency teaching certificate, and begin teaching immediately; and Peace Corps-like programs, such as Teach For America, that are designed to lure the "best and brightest" into understaffed schools.

There have also been interest and action at the federal level; a key goal of President Clinton's 10-point educational "Call to Action" is to ensure that all our nation's elementary and secondary students are taught by "talented and trained teachers." To this end, Clinton has, for example, recently proposed a major initiative to recruit and train thousands of new teachers to serve in low-income schools.

However, although seeing that all our nation's classrooms are staffed with qualified teachers is among the most important issues facing our schools, it is also among the least understood. Like many similarly worthwhile reforms, these recent efforts alone will not solve the problems of underqualified teachers and poor-quality teaching because they do not address some of their key causes.

One of the least recognized of these causes is the problem of out-of-field teaching: teachers being assigned to teach subjects that do not match their training or education. Recruiting more teachers and mandating more rigorous coursework and certification requirements will help little if large numbers of teachers continue to be assigned to teach subjects other than those for which they were educated or certified.

One of the reasons for the lack of awareness of this problem has been an absence of accurate data on the subject - a situation remedied with the release, beginning in the early 1990s, of the Schools and Staffing Survey, a major survey of the nation's elementary and secondary teachers by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education. Over the past several years, I have undertaken a research project, partly funded by NCES, that used data from this survey to determine how much out-of-field teaching goes on in this country and why.(1)

My interest in this project originally stemmed from my previous experiences as a high school teacher, first in western Canada and later in Pennsylvania and Delaware, near where I had grown up. The job of teaching, I found to my surprise, differs greatly in Canada and in the U.S. One of the major differences, I quickly discovered, was out-of-field teaching. In the Canadian schools in which I taught, misassignment was frowned upon and a rare occurrence. In contrast, out-of-field teaching was neither frowned upon nor rare in the high schools, both public and private, in which I taught in the U.S. My field was social studies, but hardly a semester went by in which I was not assigned a couple of classes in other fields, such as math, special education, or English. Teaching a subject for which one has little background or interest is challenging, to say the least. It is also, I have come to believe, very detrimental to the educational process.

My experiences left me with a number of questions. …

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