Out-of-field teaching a symptom of a failing system

A report points to the burn-out among teachers being forced to teach outside their field of expertise, but this is far from a new problem and one that affects far more than teachers. While our governments continue to pontificate about why Finland and Singapore beat us in PISA rankings they blindly continue to ignore the obvious problems.

And STEM subjects are among the worst of the problem. In years 7 to 10 about 41 per cent of teachers IT classes, 23 per cent of teachers in physics classes, and 21 per cent in maths classes do not specialise in these areas, according to a 2016 ACER report. Now there are two things to contemplate about those numbers. The first is that I would argue that in a subject like Media, which also has huge out-of-field teaching, you can probably stay one step ahead of most kids by reading the textbook – that simply isn’t so with Maths, IT, and Physics. The second factor worth contemplating is that this problem is significantly worse in public schools, and worse still in low socio-economic public schools.

These problems are less likely to occur in high SES schools. Faced with staffing shortages “47 per cent of government school principals ask teachers to teach outside field, and 57 per cent of Catholic school principals, but only 14 per cent of independent school principals”.

Out of field teaching is unusual in the countries studied. Only in the United States, Brazil and Australia does it occur on a large scale and it appears to be worse in Australia than the United States.

So if you want a leading-indicator of the socio-economic disparity that is destroying our educational outcomes as a community – this is it.

There’s no question that being a young teacher forced to teach something you don’t really understand to a bunch of teenagers is a nightmare. There’s probably no faster way to devalue the subject-specific skills of the teacher and generally demotivate them, than to stick them on to teaching a hard technical subject they have not been trained in.

But there’s equally no question that it’s a nightmare for the students too.

And here’s the rub? Are we doing anything about this? Simple answer is ‘no’. There’s research and comment on this going back a long way but the problem is not being even slightly adequately addressed. We need a pipeline of qualified teachers, and that simply does not exist.

Logically the problem is only going to get worse. It does not take a genius to see that the shortage of trained teachers in Maths, Physics, and IT is because people with those skills are in high demand elsewhere. They are the people that we need as an innovative country pivoting to the modern economy. But if this generation does not teach, where will the next generation come from? This is the very definition of a death spiral.

Australia’s education system is badly broken. That’s not the fault of the students, or the teachers, or the people choosing not to teach, or even the parents making individual decisions about where to send their child and how to pay for it. Each of those micro-decisions is rational. No, the problem is at a policy level and sits squarely with us as a whole community led by our government. Market-forces will not fix this for most people because there will come a time when even the private schools will not be able to find qualified teachers without importing them from overseas.

The only way this is going to get fixed is through our government radically changing its policy position over a number of years. And if you’re looking for a simple starting point, how about: In five year’s time no more than 5% of students will be taught by an out-of-field teacher.

Image: Teacher Magazine / ACER.

One thought on “Out-of-field teaching a symptom of a failing system

  • April 24, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Had this experience in a New Zealand government school many years ago – year 11 physics teacher was teaching out-of-field (history major) and was completely unable to keep up with a couple of relatively motivated 16 year olds with a decent grasp of algebra and calculus (school had several outstanding math teachers).


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