Core Problems: Out-of-Field Teaching Persists in Key Academic Courses and High-Poverty Schools

Stafford Palmieri

Richard Ingersoll
The Education Trust
November 2008

This study starts with an unassailable premise: "Teachers cannot teach what they do not know." Yet teachers are still being assigned to teach subjects they haven't mastered themselves, finds this valuable EdTrust report. Veteran teacher analyst Richard Ingersoll used the latest federal Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) to determine not only that too many teachers have neither an academic major nor a state certificate in the subjects they teach, but that this problem is particularly prevalent in middle schools, math classes, and high poverty/high minority schools. To wit, while only 17.2 percent of core academic subjects (i.e. English, math, social studies, and science) are assigned to out-of-field teachers in high schools, a whopping 42 percent were so assigned in middle schools. And high-poverty schools saw twice as many out-of-fielders than low-poverty schools (27.1 versus 13.9 percent). Even more troubling is how little has been done to ameliorate this problem. While No Child Left Behind tried to make some headway with its Highly Qualified Teachers provision, Ingersoll discovered that states have been severely under-reporting their out-of-field teachers. In conclusion, the study suggests a few sensible solutions. First, colleges and universities need to continue to improve their teacher preparation programs, perhaps following in the footsteps of UTeach at University of Texas at Austin, which is now being replicated as part of the National Math and Science Initiative. Second, districts can grow excellent teachers through their own "teacher residency programs," such as those in Boston or Chicago. (President-Elect Obama has promised to replicate these.) Third, districts could take a page from programs like Teach For America and The New Teacher Project, which have blazed new trails in recruiting good math and science teachers. Finally, districts can use incentives to attract quality teachers through differentiated compensation programs and specialty bonuses. You can find this comprehensive report here.