Equity & Diversity

Out-of-Field Teaching More Common in Poor Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 25, 2008 5 min read

Despite reports from states claiming to have largely done away with out-of-field teaching under the No Child Left Behind Act, the practice persists in the nation’s schools—with a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students, says an analysis of federal data.

Children in high-poverty schools are about twice as likely as those in more affluent schools to be taught by teachers who hold neither certification nor academic majors in their fields, says the report commissioned by the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for poor children.

Knowledge Chasm

States vary widely in the percentages of core secondary classes taught by teachers with neither a major nor certification in the subject.

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SOURCE: Education Trust

“This should not be something that the federal government should have to tell the states to do,” said Kati Haycock, the group’s president. “The research evidence that teachers matter is overwhelming. There is not a state chief or a district superintendent anywhere who doesn’t know that teachers need to know what they’re teaching.”

The report, released Nov. 25, analyzes 2003-04 school year data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, an ongoing study of teachers conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm. It compares that information with the data states reported that year under the NCLB law.

The law requires states to staff every core-academic class with a “highly qualified” teacher—one who is fully licensed, holds a bachelor’s degree, and demonstrates content-matter knowledge in his or her field.

In all, 17 states reported a higher number of qualified teachers under the law than their teachers reported in the federal survey, with some of the disparities in the double digits. Arizona reported 94 percent of core classes were taught by highly qualified teachers, for example. But teachers reported only 58 percent were qualified.

The two data sources do not use the same definitions of qualified teachers—the NCLB law allows teachers to demonstrate subject-matter mastery without necessarily holding state certification in that subject—but the disparities are nevertheless telling, Education Trust officials said.

Ms. Haycock suggested the data reflect a variety of factors, including temporary strategies for filling vacant classrooms that have since turned into entrenched patterns; genuine shortages in subjects such as mathematics; problems with how central human-resource systems staff classrooms; and issues surrounding the federal definition of a highly qualified teacher.

The NCLB law, for instance, says teachers need either to hold majors in their fields or to pass tests in their subjects to demonstrate competency. But it also allowed some teachers to bypass those requirements through an alternative method, known as the high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation, or HOUSSE.

That method came under fire from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who deemed it a “less than rigorous” way for teachers to meet the standard, and the Education Department, in 2006, unsuccessfully attempted to curb state usage of the method.

Math a Focus

Out-of-field teaching appears to be most severe in grades 7 to 12. At that level, more than two in every five classes in high-poverty schools were taught by teachers who held neither certification nor an academic major in their fields, according to the federal sass data. In low-poverty schools, that figure fell to 17 percent.

Similarly, three in 10 math classes in high-minority schools lacked qualified teachers, compared with 15 percent in low-minority schools.

In the report, “high minority” refers to schools in which 75 percent or more of the students are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, while “low minority” refers to those with 10 percent or fewer minority students. “High poverty” refers to schools in which 75 percent or more of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, while “low poverty” refers to schools with 15 percent or fewer students from low-income families. Those percentages roughly correspond to the top and bottom quartiles of all U.S. schools, according to the Education Trust.

Francis “Skip” Fennell, a professor of education at McDaniel College, in Westminster, Md., and a past president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, noted that students who take math classes at least through Algebra 2 are more likely to have success in college and the workforce. The report points to staffing challenges in increasing the number of students who learn the higher-level content.

“It confirms what we know, and it’s very frustrating at a time when a whole lot of kids and programs are beginning to recognize the importance of this subject,” said Mr. Fennell. “We need to make sure that their teachers know the mathematics, and know it well, to ensure [students’] passport to higher education. “

The findings, he added, are also consistent with those of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, on which he served as a member. That body, appointed by the White House, found that teachers’ knowledge of math content at their grade levels mattered more than other factors, such as the routes they took into the profession.

The report calls on local and state K-12 and higher education officials to re-examine policies that may lead to out-of-field teaching.

The report also highlights state and local efforts to improve the pipeline for recruiting, training, and attracting teachers. Those include the Boston and Chicago teacher-residency programs, which feature beefed-up field experiences; the U-Teach model for preparing math teachers, from the University of Texas at Austin; a new teacher-college accountability system in Louisiana that links graduates to their students’ test scores; and incentives to attract teachers to low-income schools, such as those incorporated in Denver’s ProComp differentiated-pay model.

“We’ve been conditioned as educators to talk about the crisis in teaching, to say it’s overwhelming, it’s totally beyond our control,” Ms. Haycock said. “All of the new evidence suggests those things are wrong.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Out-of-Field Teaching More Common in Poor Schools

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