Nearly Two-Thirds of New Science Educators Lack Training in Their Subjects

By Emmanuel Felton — July 30, 2017 4 min read
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After spending four years learning how to teach physics, Ryan Nixon landed a job teaching science. Soon, he found himself in front of a room full of 8th graders; the only problem was he was there to teach them geology, a subject he hadn’t delved into since he was an 8th grader himself.

“When you’re a new teacher and you want a job, you take the job the principal gives you,” Nixon, who is now a professor of science education at Brigham Young University, told the university’s news service. “And if you’re assigned out of field, maybe you figure it out and do a good job with it, but it makes your life hard.”

Nixon undertook a research project to find out just how often newbie science educators were asked to teach in areas in which they had minimal formal training, which he defines as having either a major or minor in the area in which they are teaching. Nixon, and some other researchers from the University of Georgia, found that almost two-thirds of new science teachers (64 percent) taught at least one course outside of their field in their first five years in the classroom, while 40 percent taught mostly or entirely out of field during that period. The researchers also found that out-of-field teaching was more prevalent in rural and urban schools and in schools with high numbers of English-language learners. The survey was completed by 137 teachers who taught in secondary schools in five states in the Midwest and Southwest. Researchers followed the teachers across their first five years in the classroom and response rates dropped off through the years. The researchers said that the sample was nationally representative in terms of gender, age, certification, and school placement.

“It’s just adding to the challenges these students are already facing to be given these teachers who aren’t prepared to teach the things they’re teaching,” said Nixon.

Nixon said that these teachers are less-effective educators because they are grappling with the content at the same time the students are.

“You’re much less flexible to respond to student questions and ideas and much less likely to encourage their questions and their comments,” Nixon told KUER, a public radio station in Utah.

In the paper, the researchers cited other studies, which elaborate on how teachers’ instruction tends to differ between those with and without training in the field they are teaching.

“When teachers were knowledgeable about a subject, they were able to determine how the content should be presented, rather than simply following the textbook or other provided activities,” they wrote. “Additionally, teachers used primarily synthesis-level questions in subjects in which they were knowledgeable, but resorted to recall level questions in subjects in which they had less knowledge and experience. In addition to lower quality instruction, researchers have observed decreased student achievement.”

David Evans, the executive director for the National Science Teachers Association, agreed, telling KUER that teachers who are confident in their subject matter are often better at classroom management and exploring new teaching styles.

Several studies have found that out-of-field teaching is more common in the United States than in many other nations. Some even point to that fact as a cause for the country’s poor performance on international assessments like the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA.

Policymakers hoped to solve the out-of-field teaching problem through the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB originally mandated that all teachers be “highly qualified” in the areas they taught by the 2005-06 school year. To become highly qualified, teachers were required to either pass a subject-area test or to complete college coursework in the area they were teaching. As that deadline approached, like with so many other aspects of No Child Left Behind, those highly aspirational regulations were relaxed in 2004. Under the new regulations, science teachers didn’t have to be certified in the specific discipline—say chemistry or biology—they were instructing, but just needed to be broadly certified to teach science. In the new regulations, the Education Department acknowledged how difficult it is to find science teachers in the first place.

“While the finding that many teachers are teaching [out of field] is not new, a unique contribution of this study comes from the fact that these data were collected while NCLB was in effect,” the researchers wrote. “This is the only study we know about that has explored [out-of-field] assignments during the NCLB era. The results suggest that while a high portion of teachers may have become “highly qualified,” many new teachers were still being assigned [out of field]. The NCLB policy appears to have been ineffective in eliminating [out-of-field] teaching assignments with this sample of new secondary science teachers.”

Those regulations have been loosened even further with the passage of NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act. As Stephen Sawchuk reported last year, the highly qualified rules were cut altogether. It will now be up to states to decide what qualifies an educator to teach a given subject area. Nixon said that the fight now must be waged at the school administrator level.

“I wonder if administrators really realize it’s a problem. ‘You’re a science teacher; why does it matter? Teach whatever,’” he said to BYU News. “But when it comes down to it, administrators need to say, my teachers need to be where they can teach best.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.