Right teacher, wrong subject. Report says unqualified instruction widespread

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The recent downpour of attention paid to education has caused several longstanding teacher issues to come up, like earthworms, to the surface. And, like the proverbial early birds, unions and advocacy groups are flocking to pull these choice morsels out of the ground. The latest ``worm'' is the issue of teacher misassignment -- asking teachers to hold classes in subjects they are not qualified to teach.

Nearly all states have regulations against such practices. But veteran educators know that for schools in rural areas and for schools with tight budgets or teachers who have one or two extra free periods, misassignment is a common practice.

The problem is, a recent survey reports, no one knows just how common.

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At the National Press Club last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Council for Better Education presented a jointly sponsored national survey showing that while anecdotal evidence for teacher misassignment is widespread, states are not keeping track of the problem and rarely hold school districts accountable.

The AFT estimates that nearly 200,000 of America's 2.2 million teachers are teaching in fields outside their expertise and licensing.

AFT president Albert Shanker says that ``this sounds like a small issue until you realize that a child may be stuck for a year -- even two -- with a teacher who knows very little about the subject.'' Mr. Shanker noted that in such areas as math and science, one bad teacher may be enough to discourage a child for several years, or turn him away from the subject entirely. ``That is a crime,'' he says.

Virginia Robinson, editor of Education Times and author of a survey, ``Making Do in the Classroom,'' says her study shows that ``reading is the single subject most misassigned.''

The two main reasons for misassignment are money and expediency, most educators agree. A biology teacher, for example, takes an English class so the English teacher can coach the basketball team. Or a French teacher with three extra periods teaches social studies during two of them, saving the school the cost of an extra teacher. As one educator told the Monitor, ``Basically, the teacher does the principal a favor.''

Because misassignment takes place quietly at the local level, Ms. Robinson says, it is difficult to evaluate and hold districts accountable.

Graham Downs, president of the Council for Better Education, says another reason the problem is elusive is ``a vested interest among principals and local superintendents in camouflaging the issue'' for political and economic reasons. He says it's a practice antithetical to the recent excellence reforms.

Scott Widemeyer of the AFT says that since the states are not ``policing themselves'' and the problem is local, misappropriation must become ``a parental issue.''

``Parents should demand to find out if their children are being taught by teachers who are licensed in their subjects,'' he says.

Pundits say the problem of misassignment is further complicated by the current teacher shortages. Ann Lewis, who has reported on rural schools for many years for the national newsletter, Education USA, notes that in many rural districts it is impossible to meet state standards, particularly with the new, more rigorous graduation requirements.

Still, the AFT's Shanker contends, if math, English, and history are important enough subjects to legislate and evaluate teachers on, they should also be monitored at the local level.

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