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How thousands of Australian students are being taught STEM subjects by ‘out-of-field’ teachers

For years now STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines have been hailed as the key to making Australia an innovation nation.

But, as a recent report by the University of Sydney and Monash University shows, issues of educational expertise and teaching out-of-field may be jeopardising that ambitious yet achievable goal.

As a former teacher myself, I would hazard to guess that teachers have at least at one point in their careers taught out-of-field (teaching Biology, for instance, when they are trained to teach English).

As the subject knowledge required becomes more complex (as in STEM), however, this is far from ideal and could hold students back from reaching their full potential in STEM subjects.

The report, Teaching ‘out-of-field’ in STEM subjects in Australia: Evidence from PISA 2015, was prepared for the Queensland Government’s Department of Education and highlights a number of issues surrounding teaching ‘out-of-field’. For instance, it reveals that the probability of teachers teaching out-of-field in Year 10 mathematics is 18.7 per cent.

Slightly more than 17 per cent of technology students are “likely" to be taught by non-specialist teachers, while that figure dips to five per cent of teachers teaching out-of-field in science.

What is most confounding about the current situation is that approximately one in five Year 10 teachers who are qualified to teach STEM  subjects “are not teaching it to that Year level”. Instead, many are teaching non-STEM subjects including English (37.9 per cent), physical education (29.3 per cent) and social studies (25.7 per cent).

The report identifies mathematics as the “highest out-of-field taught subject”.

Professor Paul Richardson and Associate Professor Chandra Shah from Monash University’s Faculty of Education collaborated with Professor Helen Watt from the University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work to undertake the study. Their findings were based on data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015, “a nationally representative survey of Year 10 students, their teachers and school principals”.

The primary aim of  the study was to examine the effects of teacher characteristics and impacts such as staff shortages and school autonomy have on the likelihood of teachers delivering out-of-field STEM classes. The study found a link between teacher workloads, school funding and teaching out-of-field subjects.

“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 percent 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,” Shah said.

“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.”

Co-author Richardson also articulated how funding can affect out-of-field teaching. “Schools with better funding … can compete more effectively for qualified teachers – especially teachers qualified for subjects in demand,” he said.

Size does matter, and state-based differences

Due to funding shortages and difficulty attracting a diverse range of teachers to smaller or remote schools, the study unsurprisingly found that “more than one in eight teachers in schools with fewer than 500 students teach out-of-field, compared with just one in ten teachers in schools with more than 1500 students".

Teachers in remote schools in Australia are also far more likely to be teaching STEM subjects 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),” 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 correlates with 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.”

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