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STEM classes taught by teachers outside of their field of expertise

Australia’s largest study on out-of-field teaching in STEM has shown that one in eight Australian Year 10 STEM classes is taught by teachers outside their field of expertise. Staff shortages and lack of funding are behind the findings of the national report, published by the University of Sydney and Monash University.

Out-of-field teaching refers to teaching conducted outside a teacher’s area of specialisation, for instance, an English teacher who teaches Biology.

The report, Teaching ‘out-of-field’ in STEM subjects in Australia: Evidence from PISA 2015, prepared for the Queensland Government’s Department of Education, shows the probability of teachers teaching out-of-field in Year 10 mathematics is 18.7 percent. A little over 17 percent of technology students and more than five percent of science students are likely taught by non-specialist teachers.

Yet roughly one in five Year 10 teachers who are qualified to teach STEM are not teaching it to that Year level. They are teaching non-STEM subjects including English (37.9 percent), physical education (29.3 percent) and social studies (25.7 percent).

In mathematics, the highest out-of-field taught subject, women are more likely to be teaching out-of-field, as are younger teachers (aged under 50).

The study, led by Professor Paul Richardson and Associate Professor Chandra Shah from Monash University’s Faculty of Education, together with Professor Helen Watt from the University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work, involved data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015, a nationally representative survey of Year 10 students, their teachers and school principals.

The study investigated the effects of individual teacher characteristics and factors such as school autonomy and staff shortages on the likelihood of teachers being assigned to teach STEM out-of-field.

Teacher workload and school funding key factors

“Clearly, the more subjects a teacher is assigned to teach, the more likely it is that some of them will be out-of-field. The probability of teaching out-of-field is 4.2 percent for a teacher assigned one subject, but it is 13.5 percent for a teacher assigned two subjects and 23 percent for a teacher assigned three or more subjects,” Associate Professor Shah said.

“Requiring teachers to acquire more subject qualifications is not a panacea for solving the out-of-field teaching problem. Not only is there a practical limit, but there is also a risk of teachers not having sufficient depth of knowledge.”

Professor Richardson explained how funding can affect out-of-field teaching: “Schools with better funding…can compete more effectively for qualified teachers – especially teachers qualified for subjects in demand,” he said.

Size matters

The study also found teachers in small schools are more likely to be teaching out-of-field – more than one in eight teachers in schools with fewer than 500 students teach out-of-field, compared with just under one in ten teachers in schools with more than 1500 students. Teachers in remote schools are also much more likely to be teaching STEM out-of-field.

“Overall, our study found that out-of-field STEM teaching is lower in New South Wales (where the rate is 10.5 percent) than in other states and territories, including Victoria (14.9 percent) and Queensland (12.5 percent),” Professor Watt said.

“Because of structural barriers, such as location and size, out-of-field teaching problems for some schools are more challenging than for others. Simply providing schools with more autonomy, which correlates with less out-of-field teaching, without the necessary funding and budget flexibility, will not solve the problem.

Additional funding could finance professional development, possibly online, to incentivise teachers to qualify to teach additional subjects in demand.

Researchers say teacher quality is crucial for stimulating school students’ interest and passion for STEM. The flow-on effect is more, and better-prepared, students undertaking STEM at tertiary level, to provide the pipeline for the next generation of STEM teachers and other STEM professionals.

The paper can be downloaded here.

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