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An assessment of the phenomenon of "teaching Out-of-field" in WA Schools

McConney, A. and Price, A. (2009) An assessment of the phenomenon of "teaching Out-of-field" in WA Schools. Murdoch University. Centre for Learning, Change and Development, Murdoch University, Murdoch, W.A.

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This research study provides an assessment of the phenomenon of teaching out-of-field in Western Australian (WA) schools. The study was commissioned by the Board of the Western Australian College of Teaching (WACOT) acting through its Director, Dr. Suzanne Parry. The terms of the research were agreed in May 2008, and a contract for the research executed in June 2008. The research was conducted by Dr. Andrew McConney and Dr. Anne Price, both lecturers at Murdoch University’s School of Education.

The terms of reference for this research specified that the central purpose of the study would be to assess the extent to which the phenomenon of teaching out-of-field exists in WA schools. This assessment was to be made across all three school sectors (Government, Catholic and Independent), as well as by region (Metro and Country). It was further agreed that the study would be conducted through the development and use of a confidential survey, delivered in both paper-and-pen and online (internet) formats, and administered to a representative sample of WACOT’s active teacher members. Additionally, it was understood that the research study would provide a review of the relevant scholarly literature surrounding this topic. Such a review would serve to provide important context for understanding the phenomenon—and its assessment in WA schools—against broader national and international backdrops.

For the purposes of this research, teaching “out-of-field” means teaching in a subject or field for which the teacher has neither a major nor a minor tertiary (university) teaching qualification. Also, it means teaching at a level of schooling (e.g., primary) for which a teacher is not formally qualified.

The survey used to gather data regarding teachers’ out-of-field teaching experiences over the past two school years was developed by this study’s lead author, in consultation with a Working Group of the WACOT Board. As might be expected, the 23-item survey comprised mainly closed-ended (fixed response) demographic and Likert-type items. These items interrogated teachers’ years of experience, qualifications held and main areas of tertiary study in addition to assessing their feelings regarding teaching out-of-field. As well, the survey comprised a few contingent and open-ended (free response) items that allowed respondents some latitude to further explain their responses. The survey was made available to potential respondents in both paper-and-pen and on-line modalities.

In all 2,275 invitations to participate in the survey were sent to a randomly drawn stratified sample of WA teachers, proportionally representative of the various levels of schooling, the State’s three school sectors, and major regions (Metro and Country). By the close of the survey period, 535 active teachers (or 23.5%) had responded. This represented an at-best modest response to the invitation to participate that ultimately limits the confidence that can be placed in some of the finer-grained estimates of rates of teaching out-of-field in WA schools.

Based on the 535 survey responses received, the overall rate of teaching out-of-field in WA for both the 2007 and 2008 school years was estimated at 24%. More specifically, with regard to the overall rate of teaching out-of-field for both 2007 and 2008, we can say that we are 95% sure that the true percentage of the actively teaching population teaching out-of-field in WA schools was between 20% and 28% (i.e., 24% ± 4%).

As the sample of respondents was further disaggregated by region, school sector and level of schooling additional patterns emerged. Generally, observed rates of teaching out-of-field tended to be higher in Catholic and Independent schools as compared with Government schools. Similarly, rates of teaching out-of-field were observed to be considerably higher in Country WA schools, across all three school sectors, while maintaining the pattern that these rates tended to be substantially higher in Catholic and Independent schools as compared to Government schools. However, despite the consistency of these patterns we strongly emphasize that many of the estimates for rates of teaching out-of-field associated with smaller groups carry with them quite large confidence intervals that must be read with prudence and caution.

For the group of 123 teachers that reported teaching out-of-field, further analysis was conducted to identify what learning areas or levels of schooling were potentially impacted. The most frequent explanation given for out-of-field assignments was simply the fact of relief teaching. The second most frequent reason cited within this group was teaching in a primary school setting without appropriate qualification (in many cases teachers holding a secondary school teaching qualification had decided to move to teaching at the primary level). In the high-profile and reportedly high-need areas of mathematics and science, 7 of 43 maths teachers (16%) who participated in this research reported teaching out-of-field, and 6 of 34 science teachers (18%) reported teaching a science discipline without the necessary credentials or training.

Generally, these findings are consistent with previous research on the phenomenon of teaching out-of-field within Australia. For example, the Staff in Australian Schools (SiAS) 2008 report concluded that there was considerable evidence of out-of-field teaching at both the primary and secondary levels of schooling. The findings of this study are particularly consistent with those of Ingvarson, Beavis and Kleinhenz (2004) in Victoria. In the current study, in addition to a quantitatively similar overall rate of 24% teaching out-of-field, we also estimated out-of-field teaching rates of 16% and 18% in Maths and Science (including Physics, Chemistry and Biology). In Victoria, Ingvarson and his colleagues reported that up to 20% of primary teachers felt they were not qualified to teach at the year level at which they were working. At the secondary level about 15% of science teachers reported they were unqualified to teach in these areas, while in all other key learning areas from 25-30% of teachers reported teaching in an area for which they were not qualified.

On the question of years of experience for those teachers who report teaching out-of-field, this study found a plurality to have a high level of experience in the schools, most often 21 years or more. Although, because of the relatively modest response rate, we are not able to conclude with certainty that this is indeed the case across WA schools, this finding does call into some question the conventional wisdom on the street that it is most often new teachers who are disproportionately assigned to out-of-field roles.

In conclusion, the core business of this survey research has been to provide an assessment of the current state of the phenomenon of teaching out-of-field for WA schools, according to region, school sector and level of schooling. We have attempted to remain close to this mandate, and are confident in the overall rates reported for the 2007 and 2008 school years. Much more caution must be exercised in interpreting the estimates of teaching out-of-field for smaller subgroups comprised of only a few teachers.

We thank the five hundred and thirty-five WA teachers who participated in this research.

Publication Type: Report
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Education
Series Name: Final Report: Prepared under contract to Western Australian College of Teaching
Publisher: Murdoch University. Centre for Learning, Change and Development
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