ERIC Identifier: ED449119
Publication Date: 2000-10-00
Author: Ingersoll, Richard M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Teaching and Teacher Education Washington DC.
Out-of-Field Teaching. ERIC Digest.
The phenomenon of out-of-field teaching--teachers teaching subjects for which
they have little education or training--has long been a crucial but relatively
unrecognized problem in schools (Robinson, 1985). It is a crucial issue because
highly qualified teachers may in actuality become highly unqualified if they are
assigned to teach subjects for which they have little training or education. And
unqualified teachers may negatively impact student achievement. There has been
little national recognition of this problem, however, because of an absence of
accurate data. This situation was remedied in the 1990s with the release of the
Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a major survey of the nation's elementary
and secondary schools and teachers conducted by the National Center for
Education Statistics (NCES), the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of
Since the release of SASS, NCES has sponsored a number of projects using this
survey to profile the extent of out-of-field teaching in the U.S. (e.g.,
Ingersoll, 1995, 1996; Bobbitt and McMillen, 1995; Smerdon, 1999). This research
has documented that out-of-field teaching is an ongoing problem in a wide range
of schools across the nation. This digest reviews what the research has shown on
the extent and causes of this problem.
THE EXTENT OF OUT-OF-FIELD TEACHING
of the extent of under qualified teaching is difficult because there is
surprisingly little consensus on how to define a "qualified teacher." Although
there is almost universal agreement that student learning is affected by the
qualifications of teachers, there is much disagreement concerning how much and
which types of education and training teachers ought to receive and which kinds
of credentials states ought to require of new teachers. (For a review of the
research on the relationship between teacher qualifications and student
achievement, see National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996,
As a result, analysts have used a variety of different measures of
out-of-field teaching, each with strengths and weaknesses and each resulting in
different estimates of the extent of the problem. Some measures focus on whether
teachers have teaching certificates and others focus on whether teachers have
undergraduate or graduate degrees in the fields they teach. Measures of
out-of-field teaching also vary according to whether they focus on the number of
teachers in out-of-field placements or the number of students exposed to it,
according to which fields and subjects are examined, and according to which
grade levels are investigated. (For a comparison of different measures, see
Bobbitt and McMillen, 1995; or Ingersoll, 2000.)
The most commonly used measure of out-of-field teaching adopts a minimal
definition of a qualified teacher. This measure assesses how many of those
teaching core academic subjects (English, social studies, math, science) at the
secondary level do not have either a major or a minor in their teaching fields.
A college minor, of course, does not guarantee quality teaching, nor even a
qualified teacher. The assumption underlying this measure is that
secondary-level teachers of academic subjects ought to have, as a minimum
prerequisite, at least a college minor in the subjects they teach.
The SASS data show that even using this minimal standard there are high
levels of out-of-field teaching. For example, over one quarter of all secondary
school students enrolled in math classes are taught by teachers who do not have
at least a college minor in math, math education, or related disciplines like
engineering or physics. About one quarter of all secondary school English
teachers have neither a major or minor in English or related subjects such as
literature, communications, speech, journalism, English education, or reading
education. About a fifth of social studies teachers are without at least a minor
in any of the social sciences, public affairs, social studies education, or
Since the mid-1990s these and other SASS data on out-of-field teaching have
been widely reported and commented upon in the national media and featured in
numerous major education reports. As a result, the problem of out-of-field
teaching has become a major concern in the realm of educational policy. Despite
this attention, however, a great deal of misunderstanding surrounds the problem
of out-of-field teaching, especially in regard to the crucial question of why so
many teachers are teaching subjects for which they have little background.
THE SOURCES OF OUT-OF-FIELD TEACHING
Many assume that
out-of-field teaching is a problem of poorly educated teachers and can be
remedied by more rigorous standards for teacher education and training.
Typically, those subscribing to this view assume that the source of the problem
lies in a lack of academic coursework on the part of teachers that can be
remedied by requiring prospective teachers to complete a "real" undergraduate
major in an academic discipline or speciality. The data show, however, the
source of out-of-field teaching lies not in the amount of education teachers
have, but in a lack of fit between teachers' fields of training and their
teaching assignments. Hence, reforms designed to upgrade the training of
teachers will not eliminate out-of-field teaching, if large numbers of such
teachers continue to be miss-assigned by their principals.
A second, and also popular, explanation of the problem of out-of-field
teaching blames teacher shortages. This view holds that shortfalls in the number
of available teachers, caused by a combination of increasing student enrollments
and a "graying" teaching force, have led many school systems to resort to
lowering standards to fill teaching openings, the net effect of which is
out-of-field teaching. The data show, however, there are two problems with the
shortage explanation for out-of-field teaching. First, it cannot explain the
high levels of out-of-field teaching that the data indicate exist in fields,
such as English and social studies, that have long been known to have surpluses.
Second, teacher shortages have been exaggerated (Ingersoll, 1999b). The data
show that in recent years it is only a minority of schools that actually have
any trouble filling their teaching vacancies with qualified candidates. And,
moreover, most out-of-field teaching takes place in schools that report no
difficulties finding qualified candidates for their openings. For example, less
than one tenth of secondary schools had any difficulty filling their openings
for English teachers in 1993, but in that same year, a quarter of all public
school English teachers were uncertified in English. Likewise, in that year only
one sixth of secondary schools reported problems filling their openings for math
teachers, but a third of all math teachers had neither a major or minor in math.
Rather than deficits in the qualifications and quantity of teachers, recent
analyses of the SASS data suggest the source of out-of-field teaching lies in
the way schools and teachers are managed. The data show that the allocation of
teaching assignments is usually the prerogative of school principals, and the
latter have an unusual degree of discretion in staffing decisions. The training
of teachers is subject to an elaborate array of state licensing requirements,
but there is far less regulation of how teachers are utilized once on the job
(Robinson, 1985). In this context, principals may find that assigning teachers
to teach out of their fields is often not only legal but more convenient, less
expensive, and less time consuming than the alternatives. For example, rather
than find and hire a new science teacher to teach a newly state-mandated science
curriculum, a principal may find it more convenient to assign a couple of
English and social studies teachers to each "cover" a section or two in science.
If a teacher suddenly leaves in the middle of a semester, a principal may find
it faster and cheaper to hire a readily available, but not fully qualified,
substitute teacher, rather than conduct a formal search for a new teacher. The
degree to which a school is faced with problems of recruitment or retention may
shape the extent to which the principal relies on these options, but the data
show they are available to almost all schools and used by many. (For a detailed
presentation of the data on the causes of out-of-field teaching, see Ingersoll
Teacher quality has been an important concern of
education reformers and as a result, the issue of out-of-field teaching has
received a lot of attention in recent years. The research shows however, that
solving this problem requires more than simply recruiting and training able
candidates--the reforms most often advocated. The data show that solving this
problem requires understanding how teachers are managed once on the job.
Note: NCES publications can be obtained from:
Bobbitt, S. & McMillen, M. (1995). Qualifications of The Public School
Teacher Workforce: 1988-1991. Washington, DC: National Center for Education
Ingersoll, R. (1995). Teacher Supply, Teacher Quality and Teacher Turnover.
Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Ingersoll, R. (1996). Out-of-Field Teaching and Educational Equality.
Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Ingersoll, R. (1999a). The problem of under qualified teachers in American
secondary schools. Educational Researcher 28(2), 26-37.
Ingersoll, R. (1999b). Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages and the
Organization of Schools. Center for Study of Teaching and Policy, University of
Ingersoll, R. (2000). Measuring Out-of-Field Teaching. Forthcoming
Ingersoll, R. (2001) Teacher Quality and Educational Inequality. Center for
Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.
Robinson, V. (1985). Making Do in the Classroom: A Report on the
Miss-assignment of Teachers. Washington, D.C.: Council for Basic Education and
American Federation of Teachers.
Smerdon, B. (1999). Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and
Qualifications of Public School Teachers. Washington, DC: National Center for
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1996). What Matters
Most: Teaching for America's Future. New York: National Commission on Teaching
and America's Future.
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1997). Doing What
Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching. New York: National Commission on
Teaching and America's Future.