STEM teachers being pushed 'out of field'

STEM teachers being pushed

Shortages in staff and funding have pushed one in eight Year 10 STEM teachers in Australia to teach outside their field of expertise, a nationally published report by Monash University and the University of Sydney revealed.

The study, titled ‘Teaching ‘out-of-field’ in STEM subjects in Australia: Evidence from PISA 2015’, showed that the probability of teachers teaching out-of-field in Year 10 mathematics was 18.7%, in technology 17.1% and in science 5.1%.

It also found out that about 20% of Year 10 teachers who were qualified to teach STEM were not teaching it at the same level, despite their qualifications to do so. Instead, these teachers were handling non-STEM subjects, including English (37.9%), physical education (29.3%) and social studies (25.7%).

Gender and age were also among the factors leading teachers to teach outside their expertise.

In mathematics, which was the most out-of-field taught subject, women were more likely to be teaching outside of their fields as were younger teachers, aged below 50 years.

The study, Australia’s largest on out-of-field teaching in STEM and prepared for the Queensland Department of Education, was 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.

It used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 – a nationally representative survey of Year 10 students, their teachers and school principals – to investigate the effects of individual teacher characteristics and school context factors, in particular, school autonomy and the experience of staff shortages, on the probability of teachers being assigned to teach STEM out-of-field.

Teacher age, credentials huge determinants

According to the research, the 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 were qualified to teach and the number of subjects they were assigned to teach were significant factors that led to out-of-field teaching.

“Clearly, the more subjects a teacher is assigned to teach, the more likely it is that some of them will be out-of-field,” Associate Professor Shah said.

Data revealed that the probability of teaching out-of-field was 4.2% for a teacher assigned one subject, 13.5% for a teacher assigned two subjects and 23% for a teacher assigned three or more subjects.

Associate Professor Shah said the more subjects a teacher was qualified to teach, the less likely he or she was to teach out-of-field.

For a teacher qualified to teach just one subject, the probability of teaching out-of-field was 36%, compared to 9.5% 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,” he said.

Low levels of school autonomy and extensive experience of staff shortages were also 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.

The role of funding

Professor Richardson said: “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.”

The study found out teachers in small schools are more likely to be teaching out-of-field, with 14.2% for a teacher in a school with less than 500 students, compared to 9.7% for a school with more than 1,500 students.

Teachers in remote schools were also much more likely to be teaching STEM out-of-field.

Overall, the study showed out-of-field STEM teaching was 10.5% lower in New South Wales than in other states and territories. In Queensland, the rate was 12.5% and 14.9% in Victoria.

“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,” Professor Watt said.

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

According to the researchers, 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 said.