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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2004 (2004) 45-71

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Why Some Schools Have More Underqualified Teachers Than Others

Richard M. Ingersoll


The failure to ensure that the nation's classrooms are all staffed with qualified schoolteachers is one of the most important problems in contemporary American education. Over the past two decades, dozens of reports and national commissions have focused attention on this problem, and, in turn, numerous reforms have been initiated to upgrade the quality and quantity of the teaching force. 1

To address the quality issue, many states have pushed for more rigorous preservice and in-service teacher education, training, and certification standards. In response to the quantity issue, a host of initiatives and programs has been implemented that attempt to increase the supply of teachers by recruiting new candidates into teaching. A wide range of alternative licensing programs has been implemented to ease entry into teaching. Programs such as Troops-to-Teachers attempt to entice professionals into midcareer changes to teaching. Other programs, such as Teach for America, seek to lure the "best and brightest" into the occupation. Some school districts have resorted to recruiting teaching candidates from overseas. Finally, financial incentives such as signing bonuses, student loan forgiveness, housing assistance, and tuition reimbursement have been instituted to aid teacher recruitment. 2 [End Page 45]

Concern with the quality and qualifications of teachers is neither unique nor surprising. Elementary and secondary schooling is mandatory in the United States, and the quality of teachers and teaching is undoubtedly one of the most important factors shaping the learning and growth of students. Moreover, the largest single component of the cost of education in any country is teacher compensation.

The responsibility for ensuring that the nation's classrooms are all staffed with qualified teachers is a perennially important issue in schools, but the thesis of this paper is that it is also among the least understood. Like many similarly worthwhile reforms, recent efforts alone will not solve the problems of underqualified teachers and poor-quality teaching in the United States because they do not address some of their key causes.

One of the least recognized of these causes is the phenomenon known as out-of-field teaching—teachers assigned to teach subjects for which they have little education or training. This is a crucial factor because highly qualified and well-trained teachers may become highly unqualified if, once on the job, they are assigned to teach subjects for which they have little background. Educators have long been aware of the existence of out-of-field teaching. James Conant, former president of Harvard University and father of the SAT, called attention to the widespread "misuse of teachers" through out-of-field assignments in his landmark 1963 study The Education of American Teachers. Albert Shanker, the late leader of the American Federation of Teachers, condemned out-of-field teaching as education's "dirty little secret" in a 1985 opinion piece in the New York Times. But this practice has been largely unknown to the public, policymakers, and many educational researchers. Until recently, almost no empirical research has been conducted with representative data on out-of-field teaching. Few writers on teacher quality or school organization even acknowledge the existence of this practice. 3 An absence of accurate data on out-of-field teaching contributed to this lack of recognition. This situation was remedied with the release, beginning in the early 1990s, of the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a major new survey of the nation's elementary and secondary teachers conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education.

In previous research I have presented SASS data showing that out-of-field teaching is an ongoing and serious problem across the nation, especially in secondary schools. 4 These findings on out-of-field teaching have been replicated. Other researchers have calculated levels of out-of-field [End Page 46] teaching using the same, or similar, data sources and, although different analysts have focused on a wide range of different measures of out...


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pp. 45-71
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Archived 2007
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