Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Staffing Practices/Interchangeability

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Are teachers interchangeable?

"If a teacher gets hit by a bus, can another smart and well-prepared teacher replace the first one and achieve similar learning outcomes with the students?" asks The Teaching, Learning, and Technology (TLT) Group in a recent blog. At first glance, this question is startling. The depiction is harsh, but the point is clear: no one wants to be the kind of teacher who, for whatever reason, can be easily replaced. Likewise, a teacher is trained in his specific content area: not to be tossed from one subject to the next with very little consideration of his background.

Out-of-field teaching is a problem in the United States. Interchangeable teachers, who teach subjects they are not certified for, comprise about one fourth of the teachers in public middle and high schools across the United States ("One fourth of classes have out of field teachers"). Is the education system harming its students with under qualified teachers or is a certified teacher in one subject able to effectively teach a host of others?

Why Out-of-Field Teachers?[edit]

Schools want their students to succeed, so why then would they allow the use of out-of-field and uncertified teachers to continue? Whether they hold certification in a certain subject or not, some teachers simply excel. Their students thrive and the school sees no reason to replace them with a certified teacher. In other cases, it is more expensive to hire a teacher specifically for every subject in the school. For less money, a teacher certified in a science can also teach another. Though school systems are insisting that schools become more creative in hiring qualified teachers for quality learning, schools complain that teachers who are willing to work part-time is difficult and distance learning has not yet been proven effective (Chaika).

What The Statistics Show[edit]

Unlike Canada and many European and Asian nations, the United States treats elementary and secondary school teaching as low-status work and teachers as semiskilled workers. Few would require cardiologists to deliver babies, real estate lawyers to defend criminal cases, chemical engineers to design bridges, or sociology professors to teach English.

—Richard M. Ingersoll

So which teachers are teaching subjects outside of their certified areas? Schools in underprivileged areas, rural areas, and where minorities exceed fifty percent of the population have statistically the greatest number of out-of-field teachers ("One fourth of classes have out-of-field teachers). Science and math teachers are suffering the most in both the aforementioned schools and all other schools. Twenty-eight percent of all math teachers lack even an equivalent to a minor in math, while eighteen percent of science teachers are missing such preparation. In addition, science teachers are shuffled from subject to subject, regardless of certification, to make up for the critical shortage of science teachers (Chaika). Out-of-field teaching is not confined to only math and science, however. Nearly eighteen percent of social studies teachers and twenty-two percent of English teachers in high schools lack, at the very least, a minor in the subjects (Chaika).

However, holding a college degree in a particular subject is not the only factor that should be involved when accessing a teacher's quality. That is only the minimal requirement and does not insure that a person can actually teach the subject (Ingersoll). Taking classes on instruction and actual teaching certification should also be important factors as to whether a teacher can teach.

The Teachers' Opinions[edit]

There are many sides to the issue of out-of-field teachers, from the views of the students to the mandates set by the government. One of the most important opinions though, must come from the people who are put in the position to teach a subject that they are potentially not equipped to. Many schools look for teachers up until the very last second and, upon finding no one, do not cancel the class, but simply hand the subject over to another instructor. This person may not have any background in this subject and finds himself unprepared once school start. These teachers often use the textbook as a crutch. They will not be able to as easily or thoroughly teach the material or answer student questions because they do not have the preparation. Sometimes, a teacher may not even like the subject he is teaching (Chaika). If a teacher does not have a passion for his subject, how can he possibly instill a desire to learn the subject in his students?

Even when teachers do not mind their out-of-field assignment, there are a number of obstacles to overcome in order to effectively teach the subject. For instance, many schools will not pay for sending their teachers back to school to take classes. Therefore, if a teacher decides to go back to school, he is most likely to obtain an advanced degree to increase his earning potential (Chaika). In addition, school systems do not offer adequate support to out-of-field teachers. They do not provide additional material on the subject or allow teachers the time to learn the subject or how to teach it on their own. A teacher has been trained to teach his subject, not a subject randomly assigned to him. Therefore, in addition to obtaining knowledge about the new subject, he also must learn how to teach it (Ingersoll).

The Government Weighs In[edit]

The No Child Left Behind Act required all states to insure that their teachers were "highly qualified" in their respective subjects by the 2005-2006 school year. The U.S. Department of Education defines a "highly qualified" teacher to be one who earns a bachelor's degree, is certified in the state in which they teach, and prove that they know the subject. This would ultimately get rid of all out-of-field teachers. In 2004, responding to complaints from the states, it was modified to allow certain flexibilities. Rural and science teachers were given extra flexibility. Rural teachers were given three years to be certified in each additional subject they teach. Science teachers can now be certified in a "broad field" or in each individual area of science ("New No Child Left Behind Flexibility"). However, one in four schools failed to meet the NCLB standards by the 2005-2006 deadline. These schools face losing government aid. Additionally, schools recieving poverty funding from the government can potentially lose administrators and instructors who are removed by the federal government (Ohlemacher).

Conclusion[edit]

Now one returns to the scenario of the bus. In his blog, Steve Gilbert wonders whether it is "something to brag about" if all instructors are interchangeable ("Bus Test vs. Embarrassment Test"). If a school is able to pass the "bus test," does that make it successful in the eyes of the government or the students? Is it more important to have a teacher who can instill a passion for learning his subject in students or should students get the most basic, mediocre learning experience?

Very few states prohibit the use of out-of-field teaching, even after the No Child Left Behind Act--but Virginia is among them (Chaika). If school systems stop using out-of-field teachers and, instead, use teachers are certified for the classes they teach and, in turn, have a passion for that subject, the passion for learning might be absorbed by their students.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Ms. Smith is defined as a "highly-qualified" earth science teacher under the NCLB Act. However, her schedule shows that she is teaching a chemistry class 3rd period. What should she do to ensure she would stay a "highly qualified" teacher in the eyes of NCLB?
A. Nothing.
B. Prove she has knowledge of chemistry by taking a test.
C. Beg the administration to change the class from 3rd to 4th period.
D. Teach chemistry in another high school.

B. Prove she has knowledge of chemistry by taking a test.

A teacher in a rural high school teaches a freshman English class, a journalism class, and also a World History class. She is only certified to teach the World History. If she were to go back to school, which of the following would allow her to be "highly-qualified" in the eyes of NCLB?
A. She should obtain a degree higher in history than she already has in 2 years.
B. She should take the remaining classes to teach the English and journalism classes in 5 years.
C. She should take the remaining classes to be certified in English and journalism within 3 years.
D. She should obtain a higher degree in history within 3 years.

C. She should take the remaining classes to be certified in English and journalism within 3 years.

A school in an underprivileged neighborhood has one out of every three teachers teaching out-of-field.
A. This school meets the standards of the NCLB.
B. This school should not hire any more classes.
C. This school does not meet the standards of the NCLB.
D. This school should probably offer fewer classes.

C. This school does not meet the standards of the NCLB.

A teacher tells her class on the first day of anatomy class that she does not really care for the subject and majored in oceanography in college. What effect might this have on her classroom?
A. The students will be very excited about the class.
B. The students will study very hard to please her.
C. The students will pay attention and ask questions because she has so much to teach them.
D. The students will be disinterested and will do enough only to pass.

D. The students will be disinterested and will do enough only to pass.

It is most important that...
A. A teacher enjoys the subject he is teaching.
B. A teacher meets the standards of NCLB.
C. A teacher teaches subjects he is knowledgeable about.
D. A teacher works at the school closest to his home.

C. A teacher teaches subjects he is knowledgeable about.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

You just graduated and landed your first teaching job. Congratulations! You've modified lesson plans from your student teaching and are ready to get out there on your own. However, three weeks before the first day of school, your principal calls to meet with you. He tells you that in addition to the subject you are certified in, you will be teaching an additional class. Write 200-300 words on how you would handle this situation.

Though this is a difficult situation to be put in, I would hope that I had a few classes in the subject during my coursework in college. To be best prepared, I would obtain the SOLs for the class and compare them to the textbook the school uses. I would make lesson plans based on the two and supplement them with the textbooks from college and information I could obtain from other teachers. Provided that I had the time and the money, I would find the number of classes I would be required to take for the extra certification in the subject. Though I could not feasibly take all of the classes and teach simultaneously, I would attempt to take one a semester until I could become fully certified. It is most important that I can convey the information to the student in a knowledgeable, enthusiastic manner.


Since it is only three weeks before classes start, I would first look at the SOLs for that subject to get an idea of what is expected of me as a teacher. I would then see if I could meet with a teacher who is certified to teach the subject to get lesson plan ideas and tips. Teachers should always go to each other for help because that could be the best and fastest source of information if ever in a bind. Also, since I am a new teacher, this would help me get to know some of the teachers that I will be working with. Another person to go to would be the principal of the school. The principal is always willing to help teachers, especially new ones, when they need help or are put in a situation such as this. However, I would also look into taking a course or courses to educate myself on the subject that I am teaching, and hopefully, eventually I will become certified to teach the subject area. I would take this class during the year while I am teaching, since I wouldn’t have enough time to take the class before school starts in three weeks. —Sarah Hobbs


It is hard to say how I would react. I want to teach math, science, and social studies. Literature however is not my cup of tea. So if I was told I would have to teach literature I suspect there would be a problem. I would have to start with observing some of the best literature teachers there are in the school. I would get with the lead teacher and see what there lesson plans and tactics are. I would have to find a way to be current and up to date in the subject area. I also would have to do a serious mood adjustment which includes creating excitement. I would do this so I can actually get my point across to students. I would hope to find a fulfillment from literature and hopefully make literature much more interesting than the classes that I have taken. Despite my teaching qualifications and mood I would create an environment that would make literature a top priority. This would be a classroom that is dedicated to the joy of literature while achieving all points of interest set forth by the school board and the state. I would research and find different techniques for this subject. Find out what works best for students. Unfortunately temporarily the text will have to be a crutch. Hopefully overtime I would strive to become more knowledgeable and lean more and more away from confusing texts for the student. —Heather Olson


If I found that I had to teach another subject alongside of my subject that I am certified in three weeks prior to school starting I would try my best to teach at the subject matter in a fun and exciting manner. I would first t look at previous SOL tests. I would see what the material is that that the student will be tested on, and then I would look to see if there is an itemized list of which ones students have missed in the past and write them down so that I can constantly refer back to them. Then I would look at the text and start reading it paying note to everything. While reading the book I would take a mass amount of important notes. This would be similar to a situation a few years back when I was a student and had to learn the material. The only difference now would be that I have to teach myself the material. After that I would start making my rough lesson plans. And then to make the class enjoyable and exciting I will place different activities that would help the students tie in the lesson, so that they may better comprehend it. —Jessica Davis

References[edit]