If your high school students Spanish teacher retired, you would expect the principal to hire another teacher who majored in Spanish. Would parents accept it if the principal hired someone who had not studied Spanish since high school?
If your middle school students band director resigned, you would expect the principal to hire another music major. What would happen in the community if the principal hired someone with no music training?
Every spring we hear reports that there is a shortage of math, science and special education teachers. By early August, the shortages are still there. But when school opens in late August, there is a teacher in every classroom. Do teachers in fields of shortage magically appear to fill the vacant positions? No. Principals hire the best person available, even though the new teachers are not properly certified in the fields they will be teaching.
In 1982, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research published a study on out-of field teaching in grades seven through 12 in North Carolina. At that time, an emphasis on teaching reading in those grades was still new. Because colleges had not been preparing specialists to teach reading, 60.1 percent of those teaching one or more reading classes were not certified to teach reading. In the same study, 37.3 percent of those teaching one or more mathematics classes were not certified in that field. In science, the percentage of out-of-field teaching was 30.4.
Out-of-field teaching was more prevalent in middle schools than in high schools, in rural schools more than in urban schools, and in schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students. As we know, teacher turnover rates are higher in schools with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students.
The Wake County Board of Education should be commended for its recent action to offer bonuses to new teachers in fields of shortage. This is a step in the right direction. In 2006, Guilford County Schools offered higher pay to mathematics teachers in 11 low-income middle and high schools and in nine elementary schools another step in the right direction.
We are still hearing calls for more reform in K-12 education: Students are not doing well enough on test scores, the dropout percentage is still not acceptable, too many inadequate teachers. And we still have teachers teaching out-of-field. We also have other teachers with appropriate subject-matter knowledge but no knowledge of teaching techniques who are learning on the job. When a teacher in a field of shortage resigns, the principal often must hire a teacher without the training and competence in the field of shortage because we are not willing to pay what it takes to find competent replacements.
Spokespersons for the teachers organizations argue that one teacher is as valuable as another and therefore ought to have the same salary as another. But a surplus English or social studies teacher in a mathematics or physics classroom is not as valuable there as is a properly certified teacher.
Students need teachers who are competent and fully certified in the subjects they are assigned to teach. Students do not get quality instruction from an out-of-field teacher. One cant teach what one doesnt know. A principal would hesitate to ask a strong teacher to teach out of field, so those who do get these assignments are not usually strong teachers even in their field of certification. Is it really a surprise when U.S. students do not compare well internationally?
Would you hire a lawyer who specializes in real estate transactions to handle your divorce? Would you hire a dentist to treat your heart issues? All lawyers are not equal. All doctors are not equal. And their salaries vary by specialty. All teachers are not equal.
At a time when test scores often come up short of expectations and when new standards are replacing less rigorous ones, we should be upgrading the quality of teachers in fields of shortage. If the General Assembly were to modify the teacher salary schedule to meet free market competition, local school districts would have a better opportunity to fill vacancies in fields of shortage with qualified teachers. The students would benefit from this real reform.
Robert T. Williams is associate dean emeritus in the College of Education at N.C. State University.