CORE PROBLEMS: Out-of-field teaching persists in key academic courses, especially in America's high-poverty and high-minority schools

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Publication date: 
November 25 2008 (All day)

WASHINGTON (November 25, 2008) – In America’s secondary schools, low-income students and students of color are about twice as likely as other students to be enrolled in core academic classes taught by out-of-field teachers, according to a report released today by The Education Trust.

Out-of-field teachers are those who possess neither certification in the subject they have been assigned to teach nor an academic major in that subject.

In middle and high school mathematics, for example:

  • Four in ten classes in high-poverty schools are taught by an out-of-field teacher, compared with 16.9 percent in schools serving the fewest low-income students.
  • In schools with high percentages of African-American and Latino students, nearly one-third of mathematics classes are taught by out-of-field teachers, compared with 15.5 percent in schools with relatively few minority students.

While out-of-field teaching is particularly acute in mathematics and in high-poverty and high-minority schools, the problem is pervasive. Nationwide, more than 17 percent of all core academic courses (English, math, social studies, and science) in grades 7-12 are taught by an out-of-field teacher. In the middle grades alone, the rate jumps to 40 percent.

These data, from an analysis by Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, underscore one of the most pressing challenges facing our schools, our policymakers, and our nation: ensuring that all students have access to the strong teachers they need to succeed in school and beyond.

“Conversations about the achievement gap often turn too easily to what’s not happening in students’ homes. These data make clear that we need to put much more emphasis on what’s not happening in classrooms,” said Ross Wiener, vice president of The Education Trust. “Unless we boost the overall strength of our teaching force and ensure that all young people have equal access to well-prepared teachers, other strategies to improve student achievement are unlikely to succeed.”

Seven years ago, Congress attempted to remedy this problem by requiring that all core academic classes be taught by “highly qualified” teachers and by asking districts and states to assure that poor and minority children were not taught disproportionately by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers. However, the federal law gave states wide latitude to define “highly qualified,” and most states used that discretion to deem nearly every teacher as “highly qualified.” The U.S. Department of Education essentially looked the other way, refusing to use its authority to press states either to set high standards for teachers or to solve the equity problems.

As a result of this inattention, secondary teachers certified in one subject continue to be assigned frequently to teach classes in additional subjects for which they are often unqualified and unprepared. And states may be sweeping this problem under the rug.

In 2003-04, for example, Arizona reported that 94.4 percent of the core academic classes in the state’s secondary schools were taught by teachers who met state “highly qualified” requirements. However, when Arizona teachers responded to a federal survey that same year, they indicated that only 58.4 percent of core classes were taught by someone who was actually certified in the subject they were teaching. By no means is Arizona alone: In 17 states, there was gap of at least 20 percentage points between what the state reported to the federal government and what teachers themselves said they were teaching with in-field certification.

Rather than ignoring the problem, a handful of leaders in K-12 and higher education have stepped up to the plate to improve the ways in which teachers are prepared and recruited:

  • The University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina System, and the University System of Georgia are working to develop strong teachers to fill local needs, both for the projected number of new teachers overall as well as in subject-specific areas.
  • Louisiana committed to overhauling all teacher-preparation programs in the state, both traditional and alternative routes. As part of this overhaul, the state examines student achievement data and holds teacher-preparation programs accountable for their graduates’ ability to improve student learning.
  • Teacher residency programs in such places as Boston and Chicago are modeled after the medical school formula. These place teacher candidates for one year in the school in which they will work, so they can learn alongside accomplished mentor teachers before being assigned to their own classrooms.
  • Teach for America and The New Teacher Project are recruiting individuals with strong content knowledge, particularly in math and science, to teach in high-poverty and high-minority schools throughout the United States.
  • Denver Public Schools and Guilford County (N.C.) Public Schools provide financial incentives to attract the best teachers to work in hard-to-staff subjects and schools.

“These are bright spots in an otherwise bleak landscape. As a nation, we must commit ourselves to ensuring that all students – no matter where they live – are taught by strong teachers,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “It’s astonishing that in America, a country dedicated to opportunity for all, we are still assigning our most vulnerable children to the teachers with the weakest capacity to teach them what they need to know.”