Teacher shortages, primarily in the areas of special education, math, and science, vary by region and by school district, but critical shortages do exist throughout the country. If your child's teacher has inadequate preparation in the subject she or he teaches, is that the equivalent of educational fraud?
School boards throughout the country face increasing difficulty finding and keeping certified teachers, especially in the areas of math, science, and special education. In analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education, University of Georgia sociologist Richard M. Ingersoll learned that approximately 28 percent of all high school math teachers lack even the equivalent of a college minor in math. In Alaska, that number is greater than 50 percent! Eighteen percent of all science teachers are similarly deficient in their preparation. Further, many of those educators who are certified to teach science are certified to teach in an area of science different from the one they are teaching. For example, a teacher certified to teach earth science may be teaching biology.
Texas's Teacher Recruitment and Retention Study found the situation in their junior high schools even worse. Thirty-nine percent of their seventh and eighth grade math teachers and one out of every three science teachers were not certified to teach those subjects.
Out-of-field teaching is not an aberration, and it is not restricted to only a few subjects. Nationwide, students in one of five classes in U.S. secondary schools have teachers with neither a major nor a minor in the subject. In schools whose students come from low-income households, the percentage of teachers teaching out of their field is much higher.
"Few parents would expect their teenagers to be taught, for example, 11th-grade trigonometry by a teacher who did not have a minor in math, no matter how bright the teacher," University of Georgia sociologist Richard Ingersoll told Education World. "However, that situation is all too commonly the case."
If a teacher with the proper certification is not available, a school district tries to fill the position with teachers certified to teach in other areas. If those teachers are not available, administrators usually employ long-term substitutes rather than enlarge or cancel classes. For example, Linda Darling-Hammond reports in How Can We Ensure a Caring, Competent, Qualified Teacher for Every Child? that in Louisiana and Texas, a person without even a bachelor's degree can teach for years on an emergency license and never obtain a license.
Furthermore, because of uncertainties about enrollment, school districts frequently defer hiring decisions until just before school starts, leaving those teaching out of their discipline virtually no time to prepare. People who teach subjects in which they have little or no background usually loathe it. It's not sound educational practice. Under-prepared teachers who rely heavily on the textbook severely inhibit student learning.
"School boards' priorities have so much more to do with money than education that they drool at the prospect of replacing a twenty-year teacher with a neophyte," even if that neophyte knows nothing about the subject. That is the opinion of Joe Bard, Pennsylvania's former Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education.
In many states, teachers may teach courses in subjects for which they have no certification. Some, like Texas, permit out-of-field teaching but limit the amount of time educators may teach those subjects. Others, like Virginia and Arkansas, prohibit the practice. Because principals frequently underreport it and it's hard to monitor, lengthy periods of out-of-field teaching occur anyway.
"Some critics have tried to help the public understand that it is a problem when teachers teach out of their field, but for the most part the issue has not been visible to the general public," Emerson J. Elliott, a consultant at the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, told Education World. "There really aren't penalties associated with out-of -field assignments." Out-of-field teaching is tracked sporadically and rarely publicized.
Even in English and social studies, disciplines considered to have an abundance of candidates, Ingersoll found that nearly 22 percent of high school English teachers and 18 percent of social studies teachers do not even have a minor in those subjects. The situation in junior highs is even worse. Regardless of certification, school systems apparently find it convenient to keep under-trained teachers in those positions. How can we expect U.S. students to do well when compared to their peers in many industrialized countries?
Often it is not economically feasible to hire, say, a physics teachers just teach physics in the nearly one out of three American secondary schools that enroll fewer than 300 students. Get more creative, federal education officials suggest. Use part-timers or conduct classes by television and e-mail. School districts say finding qualified part-timers is difficult and question whether remote learning, such as television courses and e-mail instruction, really provides quality education. Few districts provide funds for teachers to go back to school, and certification or a minor in a subject takes about 12 courses. Teachers who do further their education usually prefer to work toward an advanced degree that will increase their earning potential.
Although having an appropriately certified teacher in each class is extremely important, "How Can We Ensure a Caring, Competent, Qualified Teacher for Every Child?" reports that only Arkansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin require appropriate certification. Linda Darling-Hammond found that only three states -- Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia -- require that their schools of education be accredited.
Too expensive? Think about this: Statistics on Teaching in America reports that the resources needed to make recommended reforms to the American school system constitute less than 1 percent of the amount spent for the federal savings and loan bail out.
"Unlike Canada and many European and Asian nations, the United States treats elementary and secondary school teaching as low-status work and teachers as semi-skilled workers," Ingersoll told Education World. "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.
"The commonly held assumption is that such traditional professions require a great deal of skill," added Ingersoll. "In contrast, the commonly held assumption is that teaching in elementary and secondary schools requires far less skill, training, and expertise. Those who have spent time in classrooms know that high quality teaching requires a great deal of expertise and skill."
Although teachers are not interchangeable blocks that can be placed in any empty slot regardless of their type of training, out-of-field teaching is still endemic. It happens in well over half of our secondary schools in any given year, in many settings: rural and urban and affluent and low income. The level of out-of-field teaching has remained constant from the late 1980s to now.
At a time when research clearly demonstrates that teacher quality is the factor that matters most for student learning, assigning just anyone to teach a class is not sufficient. Individuals may have a great deal of content knowledge and little ability to get that knowledge across. Individuals may be talented teachers but have no content knowledge. Students deserve teachers who possess both. They deserve a competent teacher in every classroom.
Article by Glori Chaika
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