STEM classes taught by teachers outside their field of expertise

One in eight Australian Year 10 STEM classes is taught by teachers outside their field of expertise due to staff shortages and a lack of funding, a national report published by Monash University and The University of Sydney shows.

The report titled: ‘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 per cent, in technology 17.1 per cent and in science 5.1 per cent.

Yet roughly one in five Year 10 teachers who are qualified to teach STEM are not teaching it at the same level, despite their qualifications to do so. Instead, they are teaching non-STEM subjects, including English (37.9 per cent), physical education (29.3 per cent) and social studies (25.7 per cent).

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

This study, led by Professor Paul Richardson and Associate Professor Chandra Shah from Monash University’s Faculty of Education, and Professor Helen Watt from the University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work, is Australia’s largest study on out-of-field teaching in STEM.

Using 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 school context factors – especially school autonomy and the experience of staff shortages – on the probability of teachers being assigned to teach STEM out-of-field.

Important determinants of out-of-field teaching are teachers’ age, employment contract (permanent versus temporary or casual), amount of professional development they have undertaken, number of schools worked in, number of subjects they are qualified to teach, and the number of subjects they are assigned to teach.

“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 per cent for a teacher assigned one subject, but it is 13.5 per cent for a teacher assigned two subjects and 23 per cent for a teacher assigned three or more subjects,” Associate Professor Shah said.

“On the other hand, the more subjects a teacher is actually qualified to teach the less likely they are able to teach out-of-field. For a teacher qualified to teach just one subject, the probability of teaching out-of-field is 36 per cent, compared to 9.5 per cent for teachers qualified to teach two or more subjects.

“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.”

Low levels of school autonomy and extensive experience of staff shortages are associated with increased chances of out-of-field teaching. These factors show complex relationships with the school sector, the employment contract of a teacher and the amount of professional development a teacher has undertaken.

“Funding affects a school’s capacity to effectively participate in the teacher labour market. Those with better funding and flexible budgets can compete more effectively for qualified teachers – especially teachers qualified for subjects in demand – while those with lower funding may find recruitment difficult and consequently experience staff shortages,” Professor Richardson said.

The study finds teachers in small schools are more likely to be teaching out-of-field – 14.2 per cent for a teacher in a school with less than 500 students compared to 9.7 per cent for a school 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 per cent) than in other states and territories, including Victoria (14.9 per cent) and Queensland (12.5 per cent),” 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 does relate to 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, they say.