Too Many Classes are Taught by Out-of-Field Teachers

Many Year 10 students in Australia are being taught key subjects by unqualified teachers according to a major new study. It found that 15.5% of Year 10 classes are being taught by teachers out of their field of expertise. Twenty per cent of mathematics classes and 21% of English classes are taught out-of-field. The study found that 12.5% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes are being taught out-of-field. This is likely an under-estimate because of inadequate data on science teaching.

Out-of-field teaching is defined as when a teacher teaches a subject that was not part of their teacher education or training programme or other professional qualification. Out-of-field teaching in Australia varies from 6.2% in the sciences to 63.4% in ancient languages (see Table below).

Out-of-field teaching by subject Number of teachers % Teaching out-of-field
English 2605 16.1
Mathematics 2204 20.5
Science 3011 6.2
Technology 1746 21.0
Social studies 1510 12.2
Modern languages 330 14.5
Ancient languages 22 63.4
Arts 1029 6.6
Physical education 1050 12.8
Religion/ethics 616 29.7
Vocational education 1271 26.4
Total 15394 15.5

The low rates in science and social studies are because sub-domains of these subjects are unidentifiable in the data. Science includes not only general science but also the sub-domains of physics, physical science, chemistry, biology, human biology, environmental science, agriculture, horticulture, and forestry. This means a teacher teaching, for example, physics cannot be distinguished from one teaching chemistry. As a result, out-of-field teaching in science is underestimated. For example, a teacher with qualifications to teach only chemistry and biology but is teaching physics is not be counted as teaching out-of-field.

Among the states, out-field teaching is least likely in NSW and most likely in Victoria. The probability of a teacher teaching out-of-field in NSW was 10.5% compared to 14.9% in Victoria. The probability was higher in the ACT at 18.6%, but there is more statistical uncertainty associated with this result.

The study shows that teachers are more likely to be teaching out-of-field in schools that report staff shortages. Staff shortages are more common in public schools than in private schools in Australia.

The study also found that the employment contract is a strong predictor of out-of-field teaching. A relatively higher proportion of out-of-field mathematics and science teachers are on temporary contracts: 22% of all out-of-field mathematics teachers and 20% of science teachers are on temporary contracts compared to 13% and 20% respectively of in-field teachers.

Those on temporary contracts are often casual teachers. Schools hire them, often on a daily basis, to replace teachers on sick leave, professional development or other temporary non-teaching assignments. Casual teachers are frequently not qualified to teach the subjects they are assigned to teach. Furthermore, temporary teachers have less bargaining power in negotiating with schools about the subjects they teach. Some may undertake out-of-field teaching to gain employment.

A larger proportion of out-of-field mathematics and science teachers are in public schools. Public schools employ 60% of all in-field mathematics teachers but account for 66% of out-of-field mathematics teachers. Catholic schools account for similar proportions of in-field and out-of-field mathematics teachers while the proportion of out-of-field teachers in Independent schools is much smaller than their proportion of in-field teachers. Nearly 70% of all out-of-field science teachers are in public schools compared to 58% of all in-field science teachers. Catholic schools account for similar proportions of out-of-field and in-field science teachers while Independent schools account for only 8% of out-of-field science teachers compared to 19% of in-field teachers.

The study notes that private schools generally have more income than public schools and this provides an advantage in employing qualified teachers.

Schools with more funding have a competitive advantage in the teacher labour market when recruiting teachers with the appropriate subject level qualifications. [p. 38]

Higher funding gives private schools more budget flexibility to employ qualified teachers: “tight budgets, without a sufficient discretionary component, constrains schools in the crucial decisions on staffing” [p. 45]. Better funding enables schools to offer permanent contracts to teachers, which are associated with less out-of-field teaching. The study says that Independent schools are most likely to have flexible budgets, followed by Catholic and public schools.

Out-of-field teaching in mathematics and science is more common in provincial schools than metropolitan schools and in small schools. Provincial schools employ 31% of all out-of-field mathematics teachers but account for 26% of all in-field teachers. They also employ 34% of out-of-field science teachers compared to 25% of in-field teachers. In addition, secondary schools of less than 500 students rely more on out-of-field teaching than larger schools.

While qualifications in subject matter do not guarantee quality teaching, they are important for building the knowledge and skills of students. Studies show that in-depth understanding of the content and the nature of a subject is critical for teachers to be able to engage students effectively in learning activities in the classroom. Other studies show that subject-specific credentials have a positive effect on student achievement.

The study notes that some aspects of out-of-field teaching can be more detrimental for learning outcomes than others. For example, the consequences of an English teacher taking a mathematics class could be more serious than a physics teacher taking the same class because there is more of an overlap in the specific subject domain knowledge required for teaching mathematics and physics than there is for teaching mathematics and English. Furthermore, a teacher with a biology major may cope with junior secondary science but may find it difficult to teach senior chemistry or physics.

In summary, the study shows a significant proportion of secondary teachers in Australia are teaching out-of-field. The proportions are higher in public schools, schools in provincial and remote areas and in smaller schools. They are likely to be restricting student learning in these schools.

The study suggests that better funding and more flexible school budgets are important in reducing the need for out-of-field teaching:

With adequate funding schools can operate with a degree of slack in their staffing, which then gives them flexibility to meet short-term demand fluctuation from within the existing staff rather than having to rely on the external labour market..…Meeting the short-term demand from existing staff carries less risk of teachers being assigned to out-of-field classes than meeting the demand from the riskier external labour market of casual teachers…. With better funding schools can offer permanent contracts to teachers, which are associated with less out-of-field teaching. [p. 45]

Schools can also use professional development to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to teach additional subjects and thus reduce out-of-field teaching. Digital technologies can be utilised to deliver professional development to a wide group of teachers, including those in provincial and remote locations and small schools. There is an obvious role for universities, teacher training organisations and subject associations to develop appropriate professional development activities that allow teachers to acquire subject qualifications. Incentives may also be offered for professional development that qualifies existing teachers to teach additional subjects

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