Teaching Profession

Qualifications of Teachers Falling Short

By Catherine Gewertz — June 12, 2002 6 min read
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More than half the nation’s middle school students and a quarter of its high school students are learning core academic subjects from teachers who lack certification in those subjects and did not major in them in college, a new federal survey shows.

The report, “Qualifications of the Public School Workforce: Prevalence of Out-of-Field Teaching 1987-88 to 1999-00,” and “The Schools and Staffing Survey,” are available from National Center for Education Statistics. (Both require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

A report drawn from data in the Schools and Staffing Survey outlines the phenomenon of out-of-field teaching, in which educators are assigned to teach classes for which they are not formally trained.

Researchers had eagerly awaited the SASS data—released by the U.S. Department of Education on May 31— since the survey is conducted only every six years and represents the most extensive set of data on the country’s education workforce.

The new figures arrive amid mounting concern that lagging teacher quality could be hindering student achievement. That worry has fueled debate about how to ensure that all classrooms are staffed with capable teachers. The concern is reflected in the requirement in the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 that every classroom be staffed by a “highly qualified” teacher by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

“The rate of out-of-field teaching is an unacceptable situation,” said Tom G. Carroll, the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, a Washington-based organization that advocates more stringent standards of quality for teachers.

“There is clear evidence that knowledge of content makes a difference to student achievement,” Mr. Carroll said. “If we find we have such high numbers of out-of-field teachers, our children are not being well served.”

Little Improvement

The SASS analysis compared rates of out-of-field teaching in 1999-2000 with those in 1987-88, and found the problem to have improved in some areas, such as high school English and bilingual education.

During the 1999- 2000 school year, 58 percent of middle schoolers were learning English from teachers without a major or credential in that subject, and 57 percent were learning science from similarly underqualified teachers, according to the report. The numbers were higher in history (71 percent), foreign language (61 percent), and math (69 percent). And they were particularly high in some subfields of science; the figure for physical science was 93 percent.

Other data in the report show that out-of-field teaching extends to the high school level, though the problem is not as pronounced as in middle school. One-quarter to two-thirds of high school students study most of their core subjects with teachers who lack certification in those fields and did not major in them in college.

On the elementary level, out-of-field teaching appeared somewhat harder to define, since K-5 teachers typically teach multiple subjects. One-fifth of teachers who said elementary education was their main assignment were certified in that area without having majored in it in college. That figure rose to half of elementary teachers in English and two- thirds in math.

Those who study the issue of out-of-field teaching offered varying analyses of the dynamics that produce the assignment patterns.

Some took the view that it is not a significant problem, and pointed to studies that found no strong link between teachers’ subject-matter expertise and the achievement of their students.

In an article in the June-July 2000 issue of Educational Researcher, Stephen J. Friedman, a professor of educational measurement and statistics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, cited seven studies that examined the importance of teachers’ qualifications in the classroom.

“I would like to believe that subject knowledge is an important (maybe the most important) influence on student learning,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “However, based on the evidence in the literature ... its impact has been demonstrated to be of little consequence.”

Deployment Problem?

Mr. Friedman’s article was in response to a March 1999 article in the same journal by Richard M. Ingersoll, who contended that out-of-field teaching hampers student achievement and cited studies supporting his view.

Mr. Ingersoll, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that while teacher training is often weak, the schism outlined in the SASS report is not related to how teachers are trained, but to how they are deployed in schools.

The solution, he said in an interview last week, is not to beef up teacher training, but to revamp how administrators use their personnel.

“Why is this problem so prevalent? Because it’s cheaper and more expedient than the alternatives,” said Mr. Ingersoll. “Say you’re a principal and you have a full-time music teacher, but there is only enough demand for three classes. What do you do? You assign them to teach English.”

Fueling the out-of-field phenomenon are the beliefs that teaching is not worthy of much respect, and that little real expertise is needed to teach, Mr. Ingersoll said.

“We don’t have the assumption of expertise in schools,” he said. “In hospitals, except in an emergency, you won’t see a cardiologist delivering a baby. But in schools, the assumption is, ‘Oh, gosh, you don’t have to be that smart. Teaching English, teaching math, what’s the difference?’”

Mr. Carroll of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future said that schools and districts must insist on hiring only teachers properly trained for the jobs available, and must practice a strict policy of assigning teachers only to their chosen subject areas.

To keep those staff members—and reduce the retention problem Mr. Carroll believes contributes to misassignment—working conditions must be improved, with better salaries, more teacher control over instructional decisions, and a more collegial work environment, he said.

Disparate Impact

Of particular concern to some analysts is a pattern revealed by previous research showing that schools that serve students from low-income families in urban areas have higher rates of out-of-field teaching than those in wealthier areas. That pattern increases the likelihood that children with greater challenges to learning could experience repeated years of teaching by instructors less qualified to teach core subjects, Mr. Carroll said.

The 1999-2000 SASS data do not show whether low-income schools or students of specific racial groups experience higher rates of out-of-field teaching, but officials at the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, which published the report, plan to release such breakdowns.

People working to improve the quality of education for middle schoolers lamented the SASS findings, though they came as no surprise. Nancy Ames, a founding member of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, an advocacy group based in Newton, Mass., said the report “gives us the hard data to support what we’ve known all along.”

“Middle-grade students do not get the special focus that they deserve,” she said. “They are the linchpin in the education system. In the middle grades is where we lose a lot of kids who eventually drop out of school, or drop out of learning by becoming unmotivated and not taking rigorous courses.”

Ms. Ames said that while 43 states and the District of Columbia offer teaching certification for middle school, only 23 states require middle-level teachers to have such licensure. Many states offer certificates that span wide grade ranges, such as K-8 or 7-12, and do not require in-depth study of the developmental needs of young adolescents, she said.

Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Education Trust, a research group that advocates strong academic programs for poor and minority students, said current licensure policies are out of step with the drive to higher state academic standards. Substantial subject-area expertise should be required for certification, he said.

“States are putting in place rigorous subject-area standards for kids,” he said. “We’re demanding a whole lot more of kids, but not demanding it of teachers.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Qualifications of Teachers Falling Short

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