Current Educational Reforms To Solve Out-Of-Field Teacher Problems In Public Schools Won't Work, New Study Asserts

March 16, 1999

ATHENS, Ga. -- National educational reforms designed to ensure that elementary and secondary school classrooms are staffed with qualified teachers will not work, according to a new study by a researcher at the University of Georgia.

The new research by sociologist Richard Ingersoll focuses on the problem of out-of-field teaching -- teachers assigned to teach subjects for which they have little education or training. He found that the most common assumptions about the causes of the problem are largely untrue and that proposed solutions may, in fact, cause more harm than good.

"Even using a minimal standard for a qualified teacher -- those holding a college minor in the field they teach -- the numbers of out-of-field teachers are striking," said Ingersoll. "For example, a third of all secondary school teachers of mathematics have neither a major nor a minor in that field.."

Ingersoll analyzed data from the Schools and Staffing Survey -- the largest and most comprehensive survey of teachers every completed. This survey, conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, an arm of the U. S. Department of Education, included about 11,000 schools and 55,000 teachers in all 50 states.

His research will be published in the March issue of the journal Educational Researcher.

The widespread existence of under-qualified teachers has long been known but little studied because of the absence of accurate data. The situation was remedied with the release of the Staffing Survey in the early 1990s and subsequent research by Ingersoll and others. The problem of out-of-field teaching has become a major topic in educational reform circles. But, Ingersoll asserts, the problem remains largely misunderstood, and proposed reforms may in fact have no effect on the problem.

Critics have often said the problem of out-of-field teachers can be explained as a result of inadequate training, inflexible teacher unions or shortages of qualified teachers. In his study, Ingersoll found that all three claims are largely wrong.

"There is surprisingly little consensus about how to define a qualified teacher," said Ingersoll. "In fact, there is a great deal of controversy concerning how much training and which kinds of preparation teachers must have to be considered adequately qualified."

He decided to skirt the debate by adopting a minimal definition of "qualified teacher" before he began to examine the data. So he focused on how many of those teaching core academic subjects at the secondary level do not have even a major or a minor in their teaching fields, counting both academic and education majors and minors.

"In short, I assumed that few parents would expect their teenagers to be taught, for example, 11th grade trigonometry by a teacher who did not have a college minor in math, no matter how bright the teacher," said Ingersoll. "I found, however, that to be the case for millions of students."

In fact, a third of all secondary school teachers who teach math do not have either a major or a minor in the subject and a quarter of English teachers do not have such degrees. Over half of teachers teaching physical science classes are without an academic major or minor in any one of the physical sciences and the same holds true for secondary school history teachers.

The scope of the problem is thus large, and Ingersoll argues that among the consequences are the relatively low achievement test scores of U. S. students in comparison with students in other countries.

"Is it any surprise that science achievement is so low given that even at the 12th-grade level, 41 percent of public school students in physical science classes are taught by someone unqualified?" asked Ingersoll.

While the widespread nature of out-of-field teaching is clear, the reasons for it have been diagnosed incorrectly, said Ingersoll. While there are problems with the preparation and training of teachers and there are teacher shortages at times, the statistics don't support these as being major reasons for out-of-field teaching. Nor do strong teacher unions seem to be the issue.

As a result of these views, there has been a surge of reforms designed to train and recruit more new candidates. Reformers in many states have pushed tougher teacher-certification standards, more rigorous academic course work and testing of teaching candidates. Ingersoll said many new programs have sprung up that are designed to entice professionals into a mid-career change to teaching. President Clinton has even proposed a major initiative to recruit and train new teachers to serve in low-income schools.

The real issue, however, is a far more fundamental problem that may begin with how the teaching profession is perceived in the U. S., said Ingersoll.

"Unlike in many European and Asian nations, in this country elementary and secondary school teaching is largely treated as lower-status work and teachers as semi-skilled workers," said Ingersoll. While the public often has that opinion of teachers, teaching is a highly complex kind of work, requiring specialized knowledge and skill, and, educators argue, deserves commensurate prestige, authority and pay.

The result of the public's view has been that teaching is plagued by problems of both recruitment and retention that have made out-of-field teaching a common practice in American schools. As Ingersoll (a former high school teacher himself) points out, high-quality teaching requires a great deal of expertise and skill and teachers should not be treated like interchangeable blocks that can be placed in any empty slot regardless of their type of training.

The solution may lie in the way schools are managed and mismanaged and in the continuing treatment of teaching as semi-skilled work. He asserts that reforms that ignore this problem will simply not work and in fact may do more harm than good.

In the short term, Ingersoll says, there are several possible solutions. First, in high-demand fields, schools could offer incentives or provide retraining to attract and retain teachers. Second, principals should cut back on out-of-field assignments for beginning teachers to help cut down on the large exit of such teachers from the profession. And finally, the long-term way to upgrade the quality of teaching and teachers is to upgrade the quality of the teaching job itself.

"Few would require cardiologists to deliver babies, real estate lawyers to defend criminal cases or sociology professors to teach English," said Ingersoll. "If we treated teaching as a highly valued profession, there would be no problem attracting and retaining more than enough excellent teachers."

University of Georgia

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