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'Thousands' Are Teaching Out of Field, Monitoring Is Nonexistent, Study Finds

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Washington--Many thousands of public-school teachers across the nation are assigned to subject areas in which they are not trained or certified, the Council for Basic Education has concluded on the basis of a 50-state survey of state policies on "out-of-field" teaching.

The survey, whose results were released jointly by the cbe and the American Federation of Teachers at a press conference here last week, found that "most states do not even know how much out-of-field teaching goes on" because they make no attempt to check the data or to apply sanctions to districts that may be violating state rules intended to limit the practice. The council estimated the level of out-of-field teaching on the basis of available data.

Speaking at the press conference, A. Graham Down, the council's executive director, said he feared the widespread practice of "misassigning" teachers "is going to get worse before it gets better" as states increase course requirements in such areas as science and mathematics, while facing a critical shortage of qualified teachers.

"Of all the practices that impede excellence and contravene the intentions of our best efforts to improve public education right now, none is more insidious than the misassignment of teachers," Mr. Down said. "We've got to stop the rot right now, lest the currency be further depreciated."

Titled "Making Do in the Classroom: A Report on the Misassignment of Teachers," the report is based on a telephone survey last winter of state education officials. The document states that "thousands of teachers stand before thousands upon thousands of children, charged with instruction in disciplines not their own."

Researchers at the aft estimate that as many as 200,000 teachers may be misassigned, according to the union's president, Albert Shanker, who also spoke at the press conference.

States Do Not Monitor

The study found that three out of four states have policies that deem out-of-field teaching pedagogically unsound, but few have reliable means for measuring the extent of such teaching, said Virginia Robinson, the project's research director and principal author of the report. Only Rhode Island and West Virginia explicitly prohibit out-of-field teaching and both states enforce the prohibition, according to Ms. Robinson.

A look at the information provided by officials from Utah--a state that does attempt to gather data on misassigned teachers even though the practice is permitted--is "suggestive," however, of what goes on elsewhere, the report states.

In that state, during the 1983-84 school year, 82 percent of the teachers assigned to earth science as their principal subject had neither majored nor minored in the field in college. Likewise, 28 percent of Utah's mathematics teachers and 25 percent of its biology teachers had not specialized in those fields.

But out-of-field teaching is not limited to math and science classes, the survey found. English and humanities courses, for example, are often taught by teachers trained in other fields.

Practice Permitted

Six states--Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Utah--permit out-of-field teaching without restriction, and "in many others it exists either by loose regulation or by the ratification of long precedent," the report states.

Fifteen states limit misassignment to a certain number of periods or a certain percentage of a teacher's schedule. For instance, Maryland and Michigan allow teachers to teach outside their certified subject areas for two periods a day; Alabama permits teachers to spend 49 percent of their schedules teaching out of field; and Massachusetts teachers can do so for 20 percent of their time.

The practice generally occurs, the survey found, where local school administrators have the authority to assign teachers to classes outside their fields of preparation in emergency situations, as defined by the local authorities.

Out-of-field teaching is common in, but not limited to, rural areas where schools wish to offer a broad range of courses but are limited by small staffs and budgets, the report states.

Ms. Robinson said that misassignment is not limited to secondary schools. The practice is also widespread at the middle-school level and in the elementary grades, where specialists in such areas as reading often have had no special training, she said.

States with policies discouraging misassignment often do little when it is noted, the report says. For instance, a school that employs the practice may receive "demerits" on an accreditation report, accept the "punishment," and continue assigning teachers in the same way as before.

According to Ms. Robinson, many state officials interviewed said state aid would be withheld from schools that misassigned teachers. But, she said, with the exception of Oregon, the survey found "no state that had ever withheld a penny of state aid because of teacher misassignment."

Not a New Practice

In recent months, leaders of both the aft and the National Education Association have assailed the practice of assigning teachers to subject areas for which they are untrained, calling it an obstacle to education reform.

The practice is not new, Mr. Shanker noted last week. "It is not merely the result of the teacher shortage," he said. "It is the result of an attitude that says that custodial efficiencies always override educational effectiveness."

Schools may claim that the overall percentage of classes taught by misassigned teachers is small, Mr. Shanker said, "but for the child who has a mathematics class taught by a social-studies teacher, it's an entire year, and it might mean falling behind or getting so mixed up because of what the teacher does that the student gives up forever."

A Dissenting View

Commenting on the cbe survey results, Scott D. Thomson, 'executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that no principal wants to assign teachers to classes they are not qualified to teach. But in practice, he said, it does not always work out that way.

Mr. Thomson also said that in his view out-of-field teaching is not a major problem. "We're talking about no more than 10 percent of classes," he said. "There are 50 problems in education that are more important than that."

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