Out-of-Field Teaching - Consequences of teachers teaching out of their field of study


Out of field teaching - They call it “education's dirty little secret” (Brodbelt, 1990, p.1). The number of instructors who are teaching outside of their field is considerable. Budget cuts seem to be one reason for the high number of unqualified teachers in some school systems. Poor school management and other challenges in the education system are also to blame. The issue of careless assignment of teachers is not new, but in the past two decades it has come to be seen as one of the major hindrances to quality education. To one degree or another no school is spared, from private to public, from religious to secular schools, from rural to urban schools: Teachers assigned to teach lessons in which they are not experts is a universal problem. mariam3In the United States, 21% of English teachers and 28% of math teachers did not take English or Math (respectively) as a major nor minor in college (Archer, 1999). They have had no focused educational background in the course they are teaching. In 1996, more than half of public-school students in history classes were taught by a teacher who did not take history in college (Ingersoll & Gruber, 1996).

And according to the U.S. Department of Education, 71% of students in physical science classes were taught by a teacher who did not come from a physical science background (as cited in Ingersoll & Gruber, 1996). These numbers are staggering. In areas were poverty is high, out-of-field teaching is even more pervasive.

Now, how can we expect teachers to be clear and persuasive in fields with which they are not familiar, and how can we expect their students to be high achievers? The problem of out-of-field teaching is one that definitely needs attention, not just for educators or school boards, but also for parents and the community at large. Teachers have a hard time with a subject with which they are unskilled or inexperienced. They lack the necessary background knowledge that is required to teach effectively (Archer, 1999). This means that they have to do extra research and work to be prepared for the class, adding stress to their already busy schedules, which can contribute to the problem of teacher burnout due to work overload (Pillay, Goddard & Wilss, 2005).

Indeed, several studies have illustrated that out-of-field teaching also affects teachers’ self-esteem, sense of identity, and overall wellbeing (Barlow, 2002; Hobbs, 2012; Mathews, Boon, Flisher & Schaalma, 2006; Pillay et al., 2005). Moreover, increased stress among faculty places extra pressure on school administrators who then have to provide additional support to these teachers (Hobbs, 2012). Of course, the harm is not only to teachers and administrators, but trickles down to students in the end—those who are the recipients of the lessons being taught. Qualified teachers are certainly one of the major influences on the growth of students, yet when they are placed in the wrong classroom, any teacher can quickly become unqualified (Ingersoll, 2001).

Out of field teaching - The Consequences

Perhaps the worst consequence of out-of-field teaching is the fact that it creates a vicious cycle. A teacher who is not satisfied with his/her job will resign (Ingersoll, 1998), which leaves an urgent vacancy at the school. The administrators of that school then scramble to assign another teacher to fill the position—often an instructor who has no background in that particular terrain. This teacher, in turn, becomes frustrated and eventually decides to leave as well…and the pattern repeats (Ingersoll, 1999).

mariam“Few would require cardiologists to deliver babies, real estate lawyers to defend criminal cases, chemical engineers to design bridges, or sociology professors to teach English” (Ingersoll, 1998, p. 7). This is precisely why it is crucial to find solutions to the out-of-field teaching problem. If we want our students to reach their highest potential, they must start with being taught by qualified and knowledgeable teachers.

Knowing that assigning teachers incorrectly impedes education and staff retention, one might wonder why the matter remains unresolved. The problem is that the issue is complex, and thus needs to be addressed on numerous different levels (Archer, 1999). There are several reasons why out-of-field teaching persists. In order to attempt to solve the issue, it is first essential to look at the underlying causes.

One of the obvious causes commonly cited is shortage of funds. Many schools just do not have the budget to hire all the teachers they need for all the courses they have. This is particularly true for schools in low-income neighborhoods. Indeed, schools in poor areas tend to have the highest number of teachers who are incorrectly assigned (Barlow, 2002). In addition to poor schools, small-sized schools—often located in rural areas—tend to suffer from out-of-field teaching (Hobbs, 2012).

According to Emily Feistritzer, the president of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, one third of American schools have less than 300 students. In schools like these it is challenging to assure that only physics-major teachers teach physics; she says that it “is not economically feasible” (as cited in Archer, 1999, p. 6).

Lack of funding is far from being the only factor in the problem—and some would argue that it is not the main cause. One explanation that Ingersoll (1998) presents is the one commonly assumed to account for the entire issue: a shortage of teachers. Data show that the demand for teachers has grown with the population: since the 1980s, there are more and more students enrolled in schools. Hence, there is a gap between supply and demand. With fewer teachers than is required, those who do exist are forced to fill more roles. Administrators fill their vacancies by assigning teachers qualified in other fields to teach an extra course (Ingersoll, 1998).

A weakness in this argument comes when faced with the fact that even English classrooms are assigned to teachers unqualified in the subject, despite a surplus of English teachers (Ingersoll, 2001). Closer examination of the ‘teachers’ shortage’ question reveals that schools mismanage the employment of the teachers they have, regardless of whether there are qualified applicants to their vacant positions. What seems to be the major issue is that schools lack the ability to retain their teachers (Barlow, 2002 & Hobbs, 2012).

Teachers are leaving their positions due to frustration or because they want higher salaries (Ingersoll, 1998). Simply put, many teachers are underpaid (Brodbelt, 1990). Thus, teacher turnover is what is at the core of the issue. Instead of devising ways to increase teacher retention, or making a correct attempt to hire someone new when a teacher leaves suddenly, administrators often opt for what seems the simplest, fastest, and cheapest solution: assigning a teacher who already works at the school in a different field to fill the void (Ingersoll, 1998).

One other major cause that Ingersoll (1998) presents is the lack of accurate data on the issue at stake. He believes that there are many misconceptions about the causes of out-of-field teaching. Ignorant as to the true causes and conditions, educators and school administrators have tried to resolve the issue from the wrong side. Thankfully, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) surveyed teachers in the 1990s, which allowed for a more accurate view of things. This study remains limited, however, because it was conducted in the United States only, which means that the findings might not be applicable to other countries.

mariam1The first solution that Brodbelt (1990) proposes is a change in policy. He believes that there are two possibilities. The first is to implement a system that will ensure that all teachers in the primary school level, for instance, would be qualified to teach all lessons in all grade levels at that school.

The second option is to promote an alternate path to teaching certification. Instead of only hiring college students who are enrolled in teaching-career courses, the policy could be such that any student could become a teacher provided that student holds a bachelor’s degree in the major fields taught in elementary and high schools (history, math, and the like).

In order to sustain quality, that person would have to have had a high GPA, maybe pass the teacher-certification test and/or do a-one year teaching internship. This will most definitely diminish any teacher-shortage issue that might exist. Other alternate methods, such as the P-16 system that allows teachers to get more knowledgeable about a particular topic they might be teaching, have also been proposed (Archer, 1999). Calling upon retired instructors to teach part-time is another solution that would solve the out-of-field teaching issue (Brodbelt, 1990).

Brodbelt’s solutions presented above imply that the main issue is teachers’ shortage. But as was discussed earlier, some educators and researchers believe that the core problem is administrative mismanagement. What they propose is to begin with changing the way the teaching career is viewed in general. The value of teaching has to be elevated.

Brodbelt (1990) gives a perfect example by referring to Japan, which values the teaching profession to a point that satisfies all stakeholders: teachers, parents, and students. Indeed, in Japan, being a teacher is associated with more social status than it is in the United States or Canada. Japan has neither a teacher shortage nor out-of-field teaching issues, and this is part of the reason Japan ranks first in the world for the proportion of high school students who graduate (Brodbelt, 1990).

With added societal value should come a salary raise and greater faculty input in the decision-making process of the school (Barlow, 2002 & Ingersoll, 1998). This has the potential to increase job satisfaction, which will reduce the amount of teachers who leave their career. Barlow (2002) also states that there should be a system of regular rewards and incentives that will not only allow keeping the standards high, but also promote teachers’ fulfillment.

Parents should be seen as key participants in quality education. Their knowledge, input and involvement in the school community have the potential to bring many solutions. 64% of parents in the United States stated that they were willing to pay more taxes if it meant that the school system would improve (Brodbelt, 1990). This means that parents have the willingness to promote positive change.

As such, schools should inform parents when a teacher who does not have the proper background teaches their students. Once they know the situation, parents might try to find a solution to prevent the sub-par education of their children. In fact, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act has a ‘Parents Right to Know’ document that forces schools to tell parents when an unqualified instructor is teaching their children’s class (Barlow, 2002).

Last, but definitely not least, schools that are located in rural areas or have very small enrollments might want to invest in technology tools that will allow their students to communicate or even take virtual courses from qualified teachers in other schools (Archer, 1999). Using teleconferencing labs or chat rooms could allow multiple schools to share fully qualified teachers even if they are distant from one another.

In conclusion, the issue regarding out-of-field teaching is complex and requires to be assessed and resolved from different levels. Each school, each city/town and each type of course will present different types of issues and will require different types of solutions. Taking the example of HIV/AIDS education in Cape Town, South Africa for instance, a study has shown that teachers who received formal training in educating about AIDS, tended to be confident to teach it in class (Mathews et al., 2006).

In addition, they were more willing to go further and implement programs and strategies on sexual health. The teachers who were trained and qualified to teach AIDS had higher self-efficacy and found it encouraging to have the school’s support. Hence, by training the teachers prior to assigning them the class, these schools avoided the out-of-field teaching challenge.

 - Founder & Chairperson of Board ABA



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- Barlow D. (2002). The teachers' lounge. Education Digest [serial online]. 68(4):64. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 1, 2014.

- Brodbelt, S. (1990). Out-of-field teaching. Clearing House, 63(6), 282.

- Hobbs, L. (2012). Teaching out-of-field: Factors shaping identities of secondary science and mathematics. Teaching Science: The Journal Of The Australian Science Teachers Association, 58(1), 21-29.

- Ingersoll, R. M. & Gruber, K (1996). Out-of-Field Teaching and Educational Equality. National Center For Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, NCES 96-040

- Ingersoll, R. M. (1998). The problem of out-of-field teaching. Phi Delta Kappan [serial online]. 79(10):773. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 30, 2014.

- Ingersoll, R. M. (1999). The problem of under qualified teachers in American secondary schools. Educational Researcher 28(2), 26-37.

- Ingersoll, R. M. (2001). The Realities of Out-of-Field Teaching. Educational Leadership, 58(8), 42.

- Mathews, C., Boon, H., Flisher, A. J., & Schaalma, H. P. (2006). Factors associated with teachers’ implementation of HIV/AIDS education in secondary schools in Cape Town, South Africa. AIDS Care, 18(4), 388-397. doi:10.1080/09540120500498203

- Pillay, H., Goddard, R., & Wilss, L. (2005). Well-being, bumout and competence: Implications tor teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 30(2).