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Out-of-Field Assignments: Case Studies of Two Beginning Teachers

by Cathy Ringstaff & Judith Haymore Sandholtz - 2002

Reports profiling America's teachers are drawing increased attention to concerns about teachers' subject-matter preparation and out-of-field assignments. In this article, we focus on two 1st-year high school teachers who graduated from the same teacher preparation program in the same year. One is credentialed in the subject area, and the other is not. Using comparative case methodology, we investigate and contrast how the teachers taught a unit on Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row. We analyze their teaching using Shulman's (1987) model of pedagogical reasoning, which divides the overall instructional process into components. We initially describe their teaching without clarifying which teacher is credentialed and which is not. After revealing the out-of-field teacher, we examine other factors that contribute to the differences in these two teachers. In a subsequent section, we argue that out-of-field teaching is a more complex issue than it appears and identify factors contributing to the complexity. We propose conceptualizing out-of-field teaching, as well as teaching assignments generally, as a matter of goodness of fit to take into account the relationship among teacher characteristics, contextual characteristics, and teaching placements.

Reports profiling America’s teachers are drawing increased attention to concerns about teachers’ subject-matter preparation and out-of-field assignments. In this article, we focus on two 1st-year high school teachers who graduated from the same teacher preparation program in the same year. One is credentialed in the subject area, and the other is not. Using comparative case methodology, we investigate and contrast how the teachers taught a unit on Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. We analyze their teaching using Shulman’s (1987) model of pedagogical reasoning, which divides the overall instructional process into components. We initially describe their teaching without clarifying which teacher is credentialed and which is not. After revealing the out-of-field teacher, we examine other factors that contribute to the differences in these two teachers. In a subsequent section, we argue that out-of-field teaching is a more complex issue than it appears and identify factors contributing to the complexity. We propose conceptualizing out-of-field teaching, as well as teaching assignments generally, as a matter of goodness of fit to take into account the relationship among teacher characteristics, contextual characteristics, and teaching placements.

Teachers are often faced with teaching unfamiliar topics: an English teacher may have to teach a novel he or she hasn’t read because of changes in the mandated curriculum, or a social studies teacher may have to teach a unit on a culture about which he or she has little or no knowledge. Ideally, these teachers will be able to draw on their disciplinary knowledge to help them overcome these specific and limited subject-matter deficiencies. The English teacher most likely knows how to analyze novels, and the social studies teacher can probably apply the tools of anthropology or another social science to help him or her learn about the culture that must be taught. In certain situations, however, teachers are misassigned to teach subjects. That is, they are faced with teaching a subject matter that they are not technically prepared to teach by virtue of a bachelor’s degree or passing scores on the requisite exams. Economic factors as well as teacher shortages lead to situations where English majors are teaching a period or two of science or social studies teachers are teaching a remedial mathematics class. Although most states have laws requiring a certain amount of congruence between teachers’ subject-matter backgrounds and classroom assignments, these laws have not been strictly enforced (AACTE Task Force on Teacher Certification, 1984; Ingersoll, 1999). Despite attention drawn to the issue, the practice of out-of-field teaching has continued for years. In 1985, Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, indicated that “very large numbers of teachers who are indeed licensed, examined, and qualified in one subject are assigned to teach subjects which they may have never taken, have never been examined on, and are totally unfamiliar with” (p. 8). At the time, he estimated that as many as 200,000 teachers in “the United States (out of a total of approximately 2.5 million) were providing instruction in subjects in which they were not prepared. Galling this misassignment of teachers a “dirty little secret” and “malpractice in education,” Shanker worked with the Council for Basic Education to publicize the problem.

More than 10 years later, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley (1998) called on states and local school districts to end the practice of allowing instructors to teach out-of-field and proposed that every teacher should have at least a minor in the subject that he or she teaches. Reports profiling America’s teachers indicate that more teachers are certified to teach in a particular assignment than have undergraduate majors or minors in the field. Although approximately 90% of teachers are certified in their main assignment fields, 36% of public school teachers in English, foreign language, mathematics, science, or social studies have neither an undergraduate major nor minor in their main assignment fields (Henke, Choy, Chen, Geis, & Alt, 1997). This suggests that many teachers certify by passing subject-matter exams, rather than completing course work. In public schools where more than 40% of the students received free or reduced-price lunches, 47% of teachers have neither a college major nor minor in their main assignment fields (Henke et al., 1997). Using data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and focusing on secondary schools, Ingersoll (1999) reported that approximately 33% of math teachers, 25% of English teachers, and 20% of science and social studies teachers at the secondary level do not have majors or minors in their assigned teaching fields. The percentages were similar whether he examined teachers without certification or teachers without a major or minor in their assigned fields. He states that “in any given year, out-of-field teaching takes place in well over half of all secondary schools in the U.S.” (p. 28).

Looking at the number of students being taught by out-of-field teachers provides an additional perspective on the extent of the situation. Fifty-six percent of high school students taking physical science, 27% of those taking mathematics, and 21% of those taking English are taught by out-of-field teachers; the percentages are even higher in lower level classes and high-poverty schools (National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996). Students in schools with the highest minority enrollments have “less than a 50 percent chance of getting a science or mathematics teacher who holds a license and a degree in the field he or she teaches” (National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996, p. 10).

Concerns about subject-matter preparation stem from the assumption that a teacher’s lack of subject-matter knowledge has negative ramifications for student achievement. Indeed, the need for teachers to have subject matter expertise is considered commonsense advice (National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996), and the negative consequences of out-of-field teaching are referred to as obvious (Ingersoll, 1999). A report by The Education Trust (1996) indicated that students fare better when teachers are more proficient with their subject matter, particularly at the middle and high school levels. The data are “especially clear in mathematics and science where teachers with majors in the fields they teach routinely get higher student performance” than teachers without majors (Haycock, 1998, p. 6). The report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future states that “teacher expertise is the single most important factor in determining student achievement and that fully trained teachers are far more effective with students than those who are not prepared” (p. 12). Although being a fully trained teacher involves more than subject-matter preparation, subject-matter expertise is often viewed as the most fundamental and the most easily addressed element.

Perhaps because of the fundamental nature of subject-matter expertise, research on teaching initially focused extensively on teacher behavior and the link to student performance. Research on teaching, particularly in the areas of teaching effectiveness or teacher behavior, “ignored one central aspect of classroom life: the subject matter” (Shulman, 1986a, p.6). Shulman proposed that “teachers’ cognitive understanding of subject matter content and the relationship between such understanding and the instruction teachers provide for students” constituted a “missing paradigm problem” (1986b, p. 205). Subsequent research found that “subject matter knowledge and background in a content area affected the ways in which teachers select and structure content for teaching, choose activities and assignments for students, and use textbooks and other curriculum materials” (Shulman, 1988, p. 12). Subject-matter knowledge also affected the substance and style of teachers’ instruction (Baxter, Richert, & Saylor, 1985; Grossman, 1987a, 1987b; Steinberg, Haymore, & Marks, 1985; Wilson & Wineburg, 1988). Similarly, teachers’ orientation to their subject matter influenced their decisions about what content to include in their classroom instruction and how to teach it (Grossman, 1991; Marks, 1987; McGraw, 1987; Wineburg, 1987).

In studying teachers’ subject-matter knowledge, researchers discovered that it was difficult to distinguish between subject-matter knowledge itself and knowledge of how to teach a subject. This latter form of knowledge, called pedagogical content knowledge, is a “special amalgam of content and pedagogy that is uniquely the province of teachers, their own form of professional understanding” (Shulman, 1987, p.8). Pedagogical content knowledge includes conceptions of what it means to teach the subject matter, knowledge of the students’ understanding and misconceptions of a subject, knowledge about curricular materials, and knowledge of subject-specific pedagogical strategies. Considered knowledge of subject matter for teaching, pedagogical content knowledge encompasses “the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others” (Shulman, 1986a, p.9). Teachers’ knowledge of their subject must extend beyond that of subject-matter experts to transform their knowledge for student understanding. Teachers tend to acquire pedagogical content knowledge through a variety of sources, including their student experiences, teacher education programs, classroom experience, and professional development activities.

The nature of pedagogical content knowledge suggests that subject-matter knowledge is an inherent requisite. Without knowledge of a subject, it seems impossible to develop knowledge of how to teach a subject. Consequently, the issue of out-of-field teaching appears cut-and-dried: Teachers should be assigned only to teach subjects for which they have background and training. Yet teacher misassignment continues; the levels of out-of-field teaching remained fairly constant from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s (Ingersoll, 1999). With impending teacher shortages in many states, the situation is unlikely to change significantly in the near future.

Although concerns about teacher qualifications, including subject-matter expertise, are receiving widespread attention (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Haycock, 1998; National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996), research specifically focused on out-of-field teaching is limited. The research focuses primarily on the extent of the situation and the reasons it occurs (Ingersoll, 1995, 1996, 1999; Robinson, 1985). Some researchers offer preventive or corrective suggestions for increasing the number of certified teachers (Roth, 1986; Watts, 1986) and identify who needs to take responsibility for practices arising out of teacher shortages (Maslund & Williams, 1983). Reports summarize teacher misassignment practices and regulations across states (Robinson, 1985) and point out which states and which subject areas have the highest rates of out-of-field teaching (ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, 1986; Ingersoll & Gruber, 1996). Yet almost no studies involve classroom observations of out-of-field teachers. One pilot study, which included observations of 36 mathematics teachers, reported that out-of-field teachers scored significantly lower than in-field teachers on the instructional presentation portion of a state teacher performance assessment system (Hawk, Coble, & Swanson, 1985). Given the endurance of out-of-field assignments, we need to know more about what takes place in the classrooms of misassigned teachers. In learning more about the instructional practices of misassigned teachers, we may be better able to determine how to assist them.

This article explores the nature of instruction in the classrooms of two beginning high school teachers—one who is credentialed in the subject area, and one who is not. We selected beginning teachers because the influence of misassignment with beginning teachers may be greater and more evident than with experienced teachers. In addition, in some districts, beginning teachers face a greater likelihood of out-of-field teaching because of formal or informal course assignment practices that favor experienced teachers. Using a model of pedagogical reasoning as a heuristic, we examine the planning and instruction of these two teachers during a unit on the same novel. Our aims in this exploratory study are to depict differences in instructional practices stemming from differences in subject-matter expertise and to begin to identify where in the instructional process an out-of-field teacher struggles the most.


This study uses comparative case methodology to investigate and contrast how two 1st-year high school teachers taught Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. Case studies are useful when how or why questions are being asked about a contemporary set of events over which the investigator has little or no control (Yin, 1994). One teacher was credentialed to teach English; the other was a science teacher misassigned to teach one period of English. Both teachers graduated from the same teacher preparation program in the same year. The program was a 5th-year credential program, meaning that candidates enter the graduate program having completed a bachelor’s degree. Both teachers worked in comprehensive high schools in the Bay Area in northern California.

Data collection extended over a 1-semester period and included interviews and observations. Interviews centered on the teachers’ subject-matter background, beliefs about teaching, expectations of students, and plans for teaching Cannery Row. Observations focused on the teachers’ questioning strategies, explanations, and techniques for evaluating student progress. The teachers were interviewed prior to and following each observation. All interviews and observations were tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim.

Data analysis followed an iterative process employed in qualitative studies (Miles & Huberman, 1984). The process includes transcribing, coding, and annotating the data; creating data displays; seeking disconfirming and corroborative evidence; and identifying patterns, themes, and explanations. In analyzing the data, we used Shulman’s (1987) model of pedagogical reasoning for several reasons that relate to the purposes of our study. First, the focus of the model is transformation of subject matter for teaching, rather than the teaching process in general. Second, the subjects in our study are beginning teachers, and Shulman’s model has been used extensively in research examining subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge in novice teachers. Finally, the model divides the overall instructional process into components thus providing a framework for examining where in the instructional process out-of-field teachers struggle.

The model posits that teaching involves five processes: comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, and reflection. We initially coded the data using these five categories and examined how each teacher’s subject-matter preparation influenced their actions in each process. After analyzing the data along these categories, we identified emergent subcategories. For example, factors such as time constraints, student characteristics, resources, and curriculum mandates mediated the teachers’ thoughts and behaviors.


In this section of the paper, we describe the teaching of the two case study teachers, Brian and David, offering little interpretation of their actions and without clarifying which teacher is credentialed in the subject area and which is not. Our intent with this approach is to allow the reader to reflect on these cases and to surmise who knows more about teaching English without predetermined biases. The model proposed by Shulman provides a basis for examining the different processes a teacher engages in during planning and instruction. Although the processes are discussed in a set sequence, this does not imply that they occur in a set of fixed stages. Instead, the processes can occur in different orders and, in some instances, may not occur at all. In each of the following subsections, we first define the specific process and then discuss the teachers’ activities related to that process.


The process of comprehension, Shulman argues, involves not only understanding the content to be taught but also understanding how the topic relates to other ideas within the subject matter and to other disciplines. Assessing comprehension is a difficult task. Measuring comprehension of literature is made even more difficult because a number of valid interpretations that differ markedly from one another can be present.

Although comprehension was not a primary focus of, this study, interviews touched on Brian’s and David’s understandings of Cannery Row. When asked to discuss his understanding of the novel, David commented,

There’s no real story in it. We just finished reading Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck knew that Lennie was going to get killed in the end, but in Cannery Row he’s just telling a whole lot of little vignettes, and the way the characters react to each other. The way the characters react to life. That’s the main thrust of the novel.

Brian, in a discussion of the theme of the novel, explained,

There were many themes in Cannery Row. One of the major themes had to do with respectability, who is respectable in our society. A lot of it had to center around our society’s definition of a good person versus what is intrinsically good. There were lots of different themes. The cruelty of people to other people was a theme that was expressed in a couple of chapters. There were a lot of themes because of the nature of the book.

In subsequent sections describing these teachers’ instruction, it becomes evident that their understanding of the novel clearly influenced the main emphasis of their teaching.


Teaching involves more than the simple transmission of facts and ideas. Shulman’s (1987) model posits that teaching requires actively transforming comprehended ideas to make these ideas more accessible to students. Transformation includes such activities as scrutinizing the material to be covered, deciding what is worth teaching, looking for errors, and organizing and segmenting the text to make it more suitable for teaching. Shulman refers to these activities as preparation. During the transformation process, teachers also think about different ways of explaining the material by using alternative modes of representation, such as analogies, metaphors, or demonstrations. Finally, after considering the characteristics of the students, they tailor and adapt the material to better suit students’ conceptions of the subject matter, their motivational characteristics, or their abilities.

Choosing What to Teach

David’s English class, California Literature, is designed for college-bound juniors and seniors. In choosing what to teach, David feels constrained by the lack of books available to use for his class. He often chooses novels based on whether or not there are enough copies for all of his students.

As with all teachers, David must consider the mandates of administrators in determining the curriculum to cover. David has mixed feelings about going against the wishes of the administration in deciding what to teach. He is hesitant to deviate from the curriculum in his California Literature class “because the students are college-prep.” David feels there is too much Steinbeck to cover in this class and that both he and his students will become “burned out.” Moreover, he hates the idea of teaching White Fang and other Jack London novels, not only because he sees the content of the stories as irrelevant to the lives of his students but also because he feels the novels are below their reading level. Despite these objections, David does not plan to eliminate anything from the mandated curriculum for his California Literature class.

Brian teaches a class for sophomores, juniors, and seniors who have previously failed English 1. After the first semester, Brian and another English teacher grouped the students from both of their classes according to their ability. Brian is working with the more advanced students. Like David, Brian’s district has a list of books from which teachers must choose. In deciding to teach Cannery Row, he explained, “I saw Cannery Row on the list and it seemed like, from what I remembered, a book that would be good to teach. Plus my friend Barbara taught it last year and said she had some materials for me and that clinched it.”

In English, Brian feels not only constrained by the curriculum, but also by his subject-matter knowledge in relation to the curriculum:

I had to go through the curriculum . . . [the] district has an English curriculum which is pretty cut and dried in what they expect you to teach in English 1. So I talked to people who taught English 1, and I read the curriculum and decided how I could best achieve that curriculum within the confines of my knowledge. And then I re-taught myself what it was I needed to know, like elements of fiction, things like definition of plot. So I had to learn these words over again so I could explain them. It wasn’t good enough just to know them myself, I discovered. I had to find a way to explain them to students.

In choosing what to teach, both David and Brian are constrained by curricular mandates as well as resources, such as available books. These teachers differ, however, in that Brian also feels he must take into account “the confines of his knowledge” in choosing how to best deliver a “cut-and-dried” curriculum.

Teaching Goals

David’s major objective in teaching appears to be to help his students feel good about themselves and their capabilities as learners. His school principal influenced his adoption of this goal. On her advice, David strives to allow students to succeed by asking them questions he knows they can answer (e.g., literal, recall questions) to boost their self-confidence. Moreover, by giving them relatively easy assignments and high grades in the beginning of the quarter, David hopes to “hook them,” and then he plans to slowly increase the amount of work required and the standard by which he grades them, all the while encouraging them to “keep up their A’s.” He thinks that they will get hooked on success and will be motivated to maintain their grades.

In his California Literature class, David feels that it is one of his “duties to take fine literature and to make it accessible to the student.” His general goal in the teaching of English is to give students a love of literature, rather than the teaching of ideas, “since they could get the ideas from their text.” David also believes it is important for his students to learn how to write because writing “makes you think, makes you learn.” Reading, on the other hand is “fun and gives .you things to write about.” He proposes that his students will learn to write if he gives them models to follow: “I make my students follow the form of the five-paragraph essay because if they keep following that form eventually they’ll be able to write that form.”

Because Brian views teaching high school as “a lot more than teaching the subject area,” he strives to teach students study skills. The transmission of content knowledge is not Brian’s primary goal in teaching. Instead, he wants to instill in his students a love of learning, hoping they will “learn how to learn.” In all of his classes, therefore, he emphasizes skills that can be applied to any number of subject areas, such as communicating effectively (both oral and written communication) and discriminating between important and nonessential details in reading a text. Brian hopes that what he teaches students will lead to a lifetime of learning.

In his classes, Brian deemphasizes rote memorization. In teaching Cannery Row, his goal was not to teach the novel “per se.” Instead, he wanted them

to gain an understanding of what a novel is. ... What I want to do is read a novel, give them an understanding of the novel and also to understand some literary devices, like what the theme is, what mood is, what tone is, symbolism, simile, metaphor, basic literary devices in the context of a novel.

Brian believes that the skills students learn while engaging in literary analysis will be remembered long after the facts about the novel are forgotten.

David’s goals in teaching appear to fall into two categories. First, he has affective goals. He wants to build students’ confidence and help them develop a love of literature. Second, he wants them to learn skills, particularly writing skills, because in learning writing, one learns to think. Brian also wants to teach skills, but his focus is primarily on general learning skills that he hopes will last a lifetime. Where David wants to give his students a love of literature, Brian wants to instill a love of learning. Finally, although Brian does not expect his students to remember facts about the novel, he does emphasize the importance of learning literary analysis. In contrast, David does not mention teaching literary analysis in his discussion of goals.

Preparing the Unit

In preparing to teach a novel, David reads (or, in some cases, rereads) the text. He also consults Cliffs Notes, and in some cases, uses notes from college literature classes to stimulate his memory. David states that he relies heavily, and without any hesitation, on materials provided by other teachers. Moreover, he often goes to English teachers for ideas on how best to present a lesson.

David feels severely constrained by lack of time for preparation for all of his classes because he has four different preparations:

One of the problems with having four preps is you’re really trying to make the classes run. All those wonderful ideas about teaching things and having new ideas because I’m new and exciting and enthusiastic—it doesn’t come to pass because, I mean, I’m merely trying to make the classes run as well as I can. Maybe next year I can have those beautiful ideas. I make the classes run. I go to sleep. And I make them run. And I go to sleep.

In the beginning of the school year, David tried to write lesson plans as he was taught in his teacher education program, but soon he changed his tactics. He explains,

Who has time to plan a lesson? Who has time to write down the objectives? I write down my objectives every Sunday or Friday. I write them down in this nice little syllabus. They [other teachers on the staff] taught me. They said, “This is a syllabus. This works.”

David spends, according to his own estimate, approximately 1 hour each morning preparing for classes. Occasionally, while his students are writing during the class period, he uses the time to prepare for his next period. He also indicates that he spends “all day Sunday” preparing for the coming week.

Whereas David spoke about time being a limiting factor in what he could accomplish in the classroom, Brian rarely identified lack of time as a major influence on his teaching. Though he didn’t point out the exact amount of time he spent in planning, he described activities that suggest he devotes a great deal of time outside of the classroom in preparation. In addition to reading (or rereading) the text he plans to teach, Brian spends time collecting ideas at teaching conferences, looking for materials at a local university’s resource center, reading magazines and newspapers in search of relevant articles, and consulting literary critiques of novels he will be teaching.

Brian does not resent devoting a tremendous amount of time to teaching because he does not consider it a 9-to-5 job. Although he states that he loves teaching, he plans to work at the high school level for about 5 years, because he doesn’t want “to get stale.” He explains that his future goal is to teach teachers:

I have a strong commitment to education. There’s only a limited amount you can do in a classroom at the high school level. I really want the opportunity to teach teachers, because I think that teaching teachers is something that has been so neglected. I’ll spend a couple of years doing my master’s (in education), doing it slowly and teach three or four years and then try to get into a Ph.D. program.

Brian also uses materials given to him by another teacher, someone who is a personal friend who does not teach at the same high school. One item that he found particularly useful was a drama blocking book:

What she did was paste pages onto a larger sheet so she could write notes inside. I wrote some things in and circled some parts that I wanted to emphasize. She also gave me information on picking your favorite character in Cannery Row and writing about the story from the character’s perspective; and she gave me some quizzes that she had prepared.

Although Brian used some of the materials he was given, he found that he was more or less on his own once the unit began because his friend did not have the time to help him further. Unlike David, who wholeheartedly accepted materials from other teachers, Brian was reluctant to rely too heavily on other teachers. Though Brian liked his friend’s ideas about teaching Cannery Row, he explained, “I’m sure I’m not going to use all her stuff. I’m sure I’m going to come up with some of my own stuff.” After teaching the unit, Brian seemed pleased that he received so little support from other English teachers:

I decided to teach the novel myself, and I really didn’t get together with any of the other English teachers to plan it. It would have been nicer to have worked with another teacher, especially given that I’m a novice, but I think I probably wouldn’t have learned if another teacher had said, “Well, here are some worksheets and here’s what you do, here’s what I did last year. Why don’t you try it?” I wouldn’t have pushed myself as much, done as much of my own work.

David and Brian differ in several regards when preparing to teach a unit. Although both use outside resources (e.g., other teachers’ materials, books from the library), Brian uses a greater variety of resources and is more willing to modify and adapt the resources to suit his own needs than is David. Moreover, David feels extremely constrained by time, whereas Brian does not appear to mind spending long hours preparing for lessons. These differences can be attributed to a number of different factors. Perhaps Brian spends more time and energy using outside resources when compared with David because of a perceived need to overcome subject-matter deficiencies. Another equally logical explanation, however, is that Brian is more interested than David in literature. It is difficult to determine if subject-matter preparation is the reason underlying the different approaches they use in the planning process.


How a teacher adapts and tailors a lesson depends on the teacher’s perceptions of students’ abilities, motivations, interests, and other characteristics. David describes the students at his high school as primarily “upper-middle-class children of IBM engineers,” although half of the students in his “lower classes are children of Mexican migrant workers.” Students in California Literature, a class designed for the college bound, are “basically high achievers, fairly well mannered, very good students.”

Through the interview process, it became evident that David knows a lot about John Steinbeck. In college, David took a course on Steinbeck from “a man who runs the Steinbeck center in Ohio.” Because Steinbeck is one of his favorite authors, he has read not only the novels to be covered in class but also criticisms of these novels written by authorities in the field.

In our discussions, he spoke frequently of such literary elements as plot, symbolism, personification, theme, and style. However, in tailoring the unit to meet his perception of his students’ needs, David decided to downplay the literary criticism aspects of the novel. This decision did not seem to be based on a perception that students could not understand such an approach. Rather, his desire stemmed from concern that an emphasis on literary analysis would “turn off” his students. Given his primary goals—to make fine literature accessible and to give students a love of literature—his decision is not surprising.

When asked how he would adapt the unit for different types of students, David explained that, with more advanced students, he would “accelerate the whole thing a lot more so that we’d do the literal questions and then we’d get right into what you think Johnny and the Eye (sic) means, what you think Henri’s vision means, things like that. A lot more discussion. A lot more writing.” David felt that it would be difficult to get less-advanced students even to read the novel:

I’d have to stand over them and make sure they’re reading it every second. I would do the same stuff but not grade them as harshly if they didn’t understand. I would stick to more of the literal part and the hardest concept I would try to impart to them is the fact that there is a layer underneath all this layer of good and fun that Steinbeck is trying to tell us about.

Brian’s students consisted of sophomores, juniors, and seniors who had previously failed English 1. Despite their apparent lack of motivation and skills, Brian had high expectations of his students, perhaps, he said, “overly high.” Brian did not express concern that using a literary analysis approach would lessen student motivation. He did, however, recognize individual differences. He stated, “You just can’t expect every student to reach the same level as every other student, or reach the level that you want them to reach in the limited amount of time that you have. You have to modify and compromise.”

Brian had an approach similar to David’s for tailoring the unit to the needs of advanced students. For these students, Brian would use a faster pace and more oral discussion. Like David, he would concentrate more of his efforts on higher order questions. Unlike David, however, Brian generated a variety of different assignments he would use with more advanced students, such as completing an independent research project, writing a short story in the style of Steinbeck, and reading another novel by Steinbeck for comparison. With less-advanced students, Brian, like David, would concentrate most of his efforts on teaching the plot, though he would still discuss the theme of the novel.

The most striking difference between these two teachers in their efforts to tailor and adapt the curriculum becomes apparent when one considers the abilities and motivations of their students in comparison with their approaches and expectations. In a college-prep class, David deemphasized literary analysis and concentrated on imparting lower level knowledge. In contrast, Brian, with a class of students who had previously failed English 1, concentrated on higher order skills of literary analysis, even though he recognized that students may have difficulty with this approach.


The first two processes described previously are important in understanding a teacher’s thoughts and behaviors related to planning. The next process, instruction, includes such observable aspects of teaching as questioning strategies, management techniques, explanations, use of humor, and other elements of interactive teaching.

Observations of David’s California Literature class indicate that it is highly structured. David provided a handout each Monday, giving students information on reading, writing, and vocabulary assignments to be completed by the end of the week. On Friday, he tested students on vocabulary. Every day, David started off with a 3- to 5-minute introduction to the writing assignment. As students wrote, David usually walked around the class, reading their previous writing assignments. After allowing them to work for about 20 minutes, David spent the rest of the period interacting with them, asking them questions, and sometimes elaborating on students’ points. On average, David asked about 50 questions per class period, most of which were lower order, requiring recall of the novel. David generally solicited answers from students by first asking the question and then calling on a student. Students rarely volunteered answers, nor did they ask questions about the novel’s content.

During these question-and-answer sessions, David rarely referred to standard terms of literary analysis, such as plot, theme, symbol, or characterization. When he did use this type of terminology, he downplayed it, saying, for example, “Well, in English teacher talk, this is personification.” Although he did not use the term characterization, David spent the majority of his time discussing different characters in the novel. His questions and explanations focused on events in the characters’ lives, how they reacted to these events, and how they reacted to one another. At times, students appeared confused because it was not uncommon for David to refer to characters by the wrong name. These errors seemed to be the result of carelessness, not lack of knowledge about the book. Usually a student would question or correct David, and he would recognize and apologize for his error. David’s decision to focus on characters in the novel fits with what he sees as the main thrust of the novel: “the way characters react to each other. The way the characters react to life.”

At times, David referred to other literature to clarify points, providing evidence of his subject-matter knowledge. For example, he referred to other Steinbeck novels while discussing the character Dora, a prostitute, and explained that Steinbeck has helped perpetuate the familiar “prostitute with a heart of gold story” by writing about such women in many of his novels.

David rarely lectured to his students. Instead, he typically limited his comments to four or five sentences and then began the question-and-answer cycle once again. Occasionally, David made analogies to clarify his point. For example, in talking about the frog hunt scene, David explained,

It was really fair ... sometimes the frog would get speared or netted, and sometimes the frog would get away. It was really nice, and it was a very good system, kind of like the old American-Soviet system. We can’t beat them, they can’t beat us, it’s very even—kind of a detente between frog and man.

David also related many personal anecdotes to his class, linking his life to the lives of the characters in the story. For example, in explaining why one character, Henri, did not finish building a boat after 7 years of work, David said,

Someone that was as good a craftsman as Henri could have probably built that thing in six months. Something else that Steinbeck was trying to say ... I don’t know if you’ve done this, but a lot of times it’s the process that’s the fun part. It’s not particularly the product. When I was a kid we used to go out in the woods and build forts. We never finished them because it was the fact that we were out there with all our friends building these forts that was important.

David’s enthusiasm for Steinbeck came across during classroom observations. In reference to a scene in Cannery Row, David said to a student,

He talks about how he takes such meticulous care. Isn’t it wonderful? Oh, it’s great! And look at this [he points to a passage in the book]. Look at this stuff! What a wonderful thing. Steinbeck says it almost as good as anyone else.

David showed the same amount of enthusiasm for Steinbeck’s characters, whom he described as wonderful, and for various scenes in the novel, to which he referred, time and again, as incredible. David also employed his rather dry sense of humor in his teaching. Tongue in cheek, he responded to a student’s question about whether or not they have to remember how many pounds of steak a character buys with, “Of course. That’s important to this novel. Yeah. 15 on the nose. And remember, it’s prime steak, not ground. And he got it from Safeway.” He frequently evoked laughter from his students by speaking in unusual voices, at times sounding like Disney’s cartoon character Dopey and at other times sounding like someone who has had a few too many drinks.

During interviews, David acknowledged that he frequently had problems with classroom management. Observations indicated that David had a difficult time focusing his students on assigned tasks. A number of students spent class time doing work from other classes or drawing pictures. Many students spent much of the class period attending to issues other than English. Class frequently began 10 minutes after the tardy bell, and students started packing up their belongings 5 minutes before the final bell rang.

In contrast to David, .Brian has an eclectic approach to teaching English. His students are required to keep a journal and to participate in “Current Events,” an activity in which students bring in a newspaper article and present it orally to their peers. In their journals they keep a reading log, where they write notes about each chapter. They also complete a vocabulary assignment each week, and they take weekly quizzes that cover the more literal aspects of the novel they are reading. Occasionally they are given 10 or 15 minutes of class time to read or to work on vocabulary, but Brian frequently reiterated that he expected them to do the majority of this work at home. During a given class period, students participated in three or four different activities. Transitions between activities were smooth, and class promptly began when the bell sounded. When students worked independently, Brian circulated around the room, assisting students or checking on their work.

Like David, Brian spent part of the period in question-and-answer sessions. During these sessions, Brian wrote notes on the board, and students copied the notes into journals. Over a 4-day period, Brian asked approximately 240 content-related questions (as opposed to questions related to classroom management). Approximately half of these questions required recall of the text, such as identification of characters or events in the novel. The other half required students to interpret the novel. Brian concentrated heavily on literary analysis, and his questions related to such elements of fiction as plot, theme, symbol, tone, and so on. Although he wanted students to find deeper meanings in the novel, he realized that this may be difficult for them:

Theme is always difficult. Kids are really literal. They see things in terms of exactly what it says and to find deeper meanings is always hard. To push them toward finding out: What do the particular characters represent? What kind of values do you feel these people represent? That kind of thing will be the hardest to do with the kids.

Brian was articulate, clear, and rarely made any noticeable errors. Though he used many examples and encouraged his students to generate examples as well, Brian rarely used personal anecdotes or analogies to make his point. He made frequent references to past lessons, however, and also referred to what the students would be learning about in the future.

These two teachers differ on a number of dimensions related to the instructional process. Using a variety of personal anecdotes, analogies, and jokes, David presented lower order ideas related to events and characters in the novel. His lessons were predictable in structure and sequence. In contrast, Brian’s presentations, which focused on higher order questions and literary analysis, contained few analogies or anecdotes, although he did generate many examples and expected his students to do the same to make their points. Although both teachers appeared enthusiastic, Brian was more serious; there were few jokes and smiles in his classroom. Finally, Brian’s students engaged in a greater variety of activities, and there was no predictable structure to his daily lessons. David’s knowledge of literature was reflected in his ability to compare Cannery Row to other literary works, an ability that Brian did not exhibit during classroom observations. On the other hand, Brian’s ability in literary analysis was clearly evident, whereas David shied away from this emphasis.


Evaluation includes checking for student understanding during interactive teaching as well as more formal assessments at the end of lessons or units. This process also involves teachers’ evaluation of materials used in the lesson and their assessment of their own teaching performance.

Evaluation of Students

During interactive teaching, David used a variety of techniques to assess student progress. Each day he looked over in-class writing assignments and engaged students in question-and-answer sessions. Each week he gave a vocabulary quiz. At the end of the unit, he required students to write an essay on the novel. In discussing how he evaluates these papers, David points out time constraints and how they influence his assessments. With more than 30 students in his class, David explains that he can only afford to spend about 5 minutes reading each student’s essay:

I’m not going to spend that much time on any of these papers. I’m going to read through it and pop a grade on it. Because I have other classes to grade and I have my own life to live. And just like anything else, you learn quick that if you spend too much time grading the writing that you’ll go crazy.

Though he claims he is “vicious” in giving feedback to his students on rough drafts of papers, that is not what we observed. While he graded a student’s essay, we asked David to think aloud and describe his actions. David did not comment on (or failed to notice) a number of misspellings, a run-on sentence, and problems with punctuation and grammar. It is difficult to know if David’s oversight was because of carelessness, lack of subject-matter knowledge, or simply lack of concern about these types of errors.

Like David, Brian used essays, quizzes, question-and-answer sessions, and vocabulary tests to assess his students’ progress. He also evaluated their journals and reading logs and graded their Current Events presentations. In evaluating students, Brian believes that teachers must take responsibility when students have problems:

Teachers have to figure out why their students aren’t responding. And take a little bit of that responsibility on their shoulders. Ultimately I feel kids love learning. Kids are curious and inquisitive and excited. We destroy them in school. We suppress all those natural instincts that would make them wonderful learners.

These beliefs influence Brian’s teaching. When a large number of students do poorly on an assignment or a test, Brian allows them to do the assignment again, or he doesn’t count the test item in the final grade. During observations, for example, he allowed his whole class to retake an essay exam, urging them to show him that they could do better. Brian believes that “most kids aren’t given enough chances to succeed in school.”


David has confidence in his ability to teach high school English. Although he states he is a poor writer and a terrible speller, David believes “I could teach anything if I could spend the time.” He said,

My confidence level is high in English classes because I’m bright. No, I know enough about literature and enough about the language that I can stay a step ahead of the students even though I learn it the night before.

David does not consider himself an expert in English, which he defines as someone who could “strip away layers to show new meanings and new interpretations [to literature].” He has always found this “stripping away of meaning” to be incredibly difficult, but he believes this may be an advantage in teaching high school students. “I won’t try to strip away the sixth or seventh layer and show it to high school kids who really wouldn’t understand how it works,” he commented. In assessing his own performance as a teacher, David states he relies on gut feelings:

How did it feel? Did it flow? Did you see glints in [the students’] eyes, light bulbs over their heads? Were they able to speak back what you said? Were they able to take what you said and make new thoughts out of it?

David claims he constantly evaluates himself, wondering if he really prepared as well as he could. Though he believes he will improve with experience, he is currently happy as long as his classes are “running”:

A class that’s running has all my wonderful handouts [indicating] this is what I’m going to do for this week. A class that runs well is a class that everything that I have there [on the handout] is accomplished. We have a little lecture by Mr. D., a lot of practice by Mr. D., and then we have a test by Mr. D. on Friday. The students take a great deal of security by the fact that they’re going to be lectured, practice, practice, practice, and tested. If you play around with that they get very upset.

In assessing his abilities as a teacher, Brian believes that he could probably teach many different things. In fact, during his student teaching, Brian had an opportunity to teach French, a challenge he welcomed. Part of Brian’s confidence as a teacher is a result of his confidence as a learner. Brian knows he is bright. “I was the best in the class. I learned how to memorize real well in college. I was classified in the genius range,” he explained. Brian feels that his interest in learning and his ability to learn quickly are assets in teaching. Though he has confidence in his teaching ability, Brian views much of teaching as trial-and-error. He is not reluctant to try new methods of teaching, or new projects, because he knows “that there will be screw-ups. But that’s life. That’s teaching. So I’m not too worried about that. I’ll learn. They’ll learn.” In assessing his performance as a teacher, Brian considers both student performance on tests and student interest:

If they do well on the questions I ask them then I assume that they’ve understood the material. The other criteria [sic] that I use is interest. Are they following me? Are they showing an interest in the topic, and are they sharing their ideas and are we having a rapport?

David and Brian use similar approaches to evaluate their own performance and that of their students. Both teachers use a combination of quizzes, essays, and tests to assess student progress. Both are confident of their own abilities to teach English and judge their own performance by looking at students’ participation in class and student work. One difference, however, is that David also gauges the success of teaching on whether or not classes are operating smoothly. Unlike Brian, who views teaching as necessary trial-and-error, David seems reluctant to deviate from a set pattern of activities that he perceives as successful.


Reflection, according to Shulman, is a “set of processes through which a professional learns from experience” (1987, p.19). As teachers reflect on their own experiences, they review their own performance in light of the purposes of the lesson, which may lead to a new comprehension of the material or new insights about their students.

In an interview following the completion of the unit, David proclaimed the unit a success, based on student reaction and participation, test scores, and essays. He explained, “Basically they got what I wanted them to get.” He felt that the unit presented few surprises and that it “went along pretty well, according to plan.” David did not believe that teaching Cannery Row influenced his understanding of the novel or of his students:

I had a very, very fine teacher, and we went over it quite completely before and basically all I was really doing was passing on the knowledge that I was able to get from this professor. You can easily grasp it, and I did.

Although Brian was generally pleased with the unit, he was not as confident as David that his students learned what he had wanted:

It’s really hard to test for that kind of knowledge. I think with the majority of the kids they understood that there were several themes to Cannery Row. They understood that the characters were symbols in the novel.

One pleasant surprise came, explained Brian, when his students chose a new novel for independent reading, and many of them selected works by Steinbeck:

It was really interesting. I asked what was going on here, and they said, “Well, Cannery Row was really interesting. It was a fun book to read.” And so that made me feel real good. So, in that sense I think I accomplished something worthwhile.

Although David believed that the teaching of Cannery Row did not influence his comprehension of the novel, Brian believed that he did learn something through his teaching:

I read it for pleasure without really thinking about theme very much and thinking about the intricacies of the novel, and now, of course, reading material on Steinbeck and knowing a little bit more about him and his books and his style, I .understand the book a lot better.

With respect to the process of reflection, there were two main differences between these teachers. First, Brian was less sure than David that the students actually understood the ideas and concepts presented in the unit. Second, Brian looked upon teaching Cannery Row as a learning experience, whereas there was no evidence that David had new insights about the novel or his students as a result of this teaching experience.


Which teacher knows more about Steinbeck and about teaching English? When we began this study, we thought it would be relatively easy to see how subject-matter expertise influenced each teacher’s planning and instructional behaviors. Similar to Ingersoll (1999), who suggests that the negative consequences of out-of-field teaching are obvious, we expected that the differences between a credentialed English teacher and a misassigned science teacher would be apparent and pronounced. Instead, we found that had we not known, we may have incorrectly assumed David was the out-of-field teacher. In fact, it was Brian who was teaching without the necessary credential in English.

We couldn’t begin to identify where in the instructional process an out-of-field teacher struggles because it was the “wrong” teacher, the correctly assigned teacher, who seemed to struggle the most. This contradiction in the basic, premise of our research caused us to reconsider our underlying assumptions. What happened to the expected gap in subject-matter expertise between the two teachers? How could an out-of-field teacher appear equally or more effective than an appropriately assigned teacher? What other factors are at work? In looking for alternate explanations, we found three emergent categories: subject-matter background, pedagogical skills, and contextual factors.


To what extent does being licensed to teach a particular subject indicate in-depth subject-matter preparation? Although licensed to teach English, David does not have a strong background in either literary analysis or liberal arts. A self-proclaimed song-and-dance man, David graduated with a bachelor’s in theater arts from a state university. After a brief stint looking for work in the entertainment field, David returned to the state university to obtain both his degree in English and a teaching credential. David describes his college education as consisting of a mish-mash of courses. Because he planned to be a dancer on Broadway, he concentrated mainly on theater arts classes and also took numerous courses in drama. He claims that as an undergraduate he “read no literature at all, even in my general education courses.” To obtain his degree in English, David took 1 additional year of courses.

Describing himself as an avid reader, David much prefers popular novels, especially in science fiction and fantasy, to “fine literature,” which he defines as that which has “stood the test of the ages. Literature that you have to think about, that you have to go back and read again.” Although his favorite book is Moby Dick, he admits that it took a special teacher to help him see the worth of this novel, because generally he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time “peeling away the layers of meaning” in novels. David’s background in English is admittedly incomplete. At the beginning of his teacher education year, he said, “I’ll tell you right now I don’t consider myself an expert on English. I merely know more than a bunch of high school students, and I merely have more of a love of literature and art than high school students.”

David’s case demonstrates that one can be licensed to teach English yet have a shallow knowledge of literature or literary analysis. In contrast, Brian’s case illustrates a teacher with a deeper knowledge of and interest in English than his college transcript would indicate. As a psychobiology major, Brian took only a few English classes while obtaining his bachelor’s degree. Fluent in French, Brian took four courses in French literature, which he believes helped him teach English. He reflected, “I think in terms of style you learn how to understand an author’s style and you can apply that to any type of novel or any kind of literature.” In addition, Brian, who indicated he has always enjoyed reading literature, took advanced English in high school and claimed he might consider majoring in language or literature in college if he had it to do again.

Both cases exemplify the complexity of determining what constitutes adequate subject-matter knowledge for teaching. Successfully completing required courses in college or securing passing scores on subject-matter licensing exams only begin to address depth and range of expertise in a particular field. As Nel Noddings (1998) points out, “a math major may not have studied geometry since tenth grade in high school and may not have the slightest idea how his or her college course work can be related to geometry” (p. 88). Moreover, subject-matter knowledge is not a competency or skill that can be mastered and measured once and for all. Throughout their careers, teachers build on and enhance their subject-matter knowledge through various avenues such as additional course work, ongoing professional development activities, interactions with colleagues, and the process of teaching itself.


Although both teachers completed the same teacher credential program, they exhibited contrasting levels of pedagogical skills. David didn’t prepare daily lesson plans, relying instead on weekly outlines. He encountered repeated problems with classroom management, particularly in terms of focusing students on assigned tasks. Class frequently started late, and students often spent class time doing work for other classes. David rarely altered his instructional strategies, regardless of student inattention or confusion. Despite his own enthusiasm for Steinbeck’s novel, David struggled to engage his students. He attempted to gain student engagement through personal anecdotes and jokes, rather than intellectual stimulation. He focused primarily on lower order questioning based on recall, and students rarely volunteered answers or asked questions related to content. Confident about his teaching abilities, David primarily gauged his success on the extent to which classroom activities went “according to plan.”

In contrast, although Brian was misassigned to teach English, he had strong pedagogical skills. He knew how to structure and organize a lesson. He implemented effective classroom management techniques. He employed a variety of activities in his instruction and effectively handled transitions between activities. He asked higher order questions and focused on literary analysis, rather than recall of content. Brian altered his strategies based on student feedback and considered it his responsibility when students had problems or weren’t responding to his instruction. Perhaps because of his pedagogical skills, he was not intimidated at the prospect of teaching out of his subject area. In fact, he volunteered for the position. He knew how and where to get the help he needed, and he spent time reinforcing his subject-matter knowledge and planning his instruction. Brain felt confident about his teaching ability but also viewed teaching as an ongoing process of learning and improving.

These cases exemplify the fundamental nature of general pedagogical skills. Even if out-of-field teachers could somehow be transformed into subject-matter experts, those who are unable to manage and organize a classroom would still struggle for survival simply because they could not keep students involved in the learning process. Without the ability to maintain student engagement through meaningful instructional activities, even the most knowledgeable subject-matter experts are unable to convey and transform their knowledge for student understanding.


Other differences between these two teachers emerge when we look at contextual factors. A primary difference was time. David consistently commented about time constraints that limited his ability to prepare for class, to gather resources, and to compile lesson plans. Time constraints also led to hurried and cursory assessments of his students’ work, particularly their writing. In contrast, Brian rarely identified lack of time as an influence on his teaching, and he devoted a considerable amount of time outside of the school day to preparation. Personal circumstances, including willingness to devote extensive outside hours to preparation, likely contributed to the differences in time constraints. But another key reason lies in their teaching assignments—another contextual factor. As a 1st-year teacher, David had four different preparations—an unwieldy assignment for even the most experienced teachers. The demands of preparing for four courses could easily overwhelm a new teacher. With such a daunting teaching assignment, David naturally would experience time pressures and, as a result, concentrate initially on making sure the classes were operating smoothly. Brian’s assignment of two preparations, one of which is out of field, is also challenging for a beginning teacher but at least results in more realistic expectations in terms of time.

For a 1st-year teacher to be assigned four preparations defies reason. The fact that the principal and fellow teachers in the department would allow such a heavy teaching assignment for a beginning teacher brings into question the level of resources and support available to David. The department did not offer a high level of collegial support or an assigned mentor. Instead, David took the initiative and approached other English teachers for ideas. Although he apparently had access to fellow teachers and relied heavily on materials they provided, they didn’t appear to offer suggestions on implementation or guidance on adapting materials. In addition, David often made curricular decisions based on resources rather than instructional needs; for example, he selected novels on the basis of whether or not there were enough copies for the class.

Brian also received little support from other teachers in the department. As a novice, he thought he could learn from more experienced teachers, but he also felt that working independently pushed him to plan and prepare more thoroughly. Instead of seeking help from other teachers, he drew upon a wealth of outside resources and invested in independent study and planning. At the time, neither teacher benefited from participating in an organized beginning teacher support program. Without a structured form of support, both teachers relied heavily on their own resources.

This lack of structured support would be a drawback for any beginning teacher, but for 1st year teachers with out-of-field assignments, it becomes even more significant. Well-designed beginning teacher support programs offer instructional support as well as psychological support—both of which are critical in enhancing success in the classroom and decreasing teacher attrition (Gold, 1996). Evaluations of specific programs indicate that support, assessment, and continued professional development in the beginning years contribute to the success of the teacher and result in better instruction for students (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 1992; Garrett, 1993, as referenced in Gold, 1996). Beyond offering support, some induction programs are investigating ways of ensuring appropriate teaching assignments for beginning teachers. For example, the standards for the California Beginning Teacher and Assessment Program (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 1997) include the recommendation that individual programs make efforts to secure assignments for beginning teachers that optimize their chances for success. In keeping with this recommendation, no 1st-year teacher in an established program should be assigned, or allowed to volunteer for, an out-of-field assignment. Yet given shortages of qualified teachers—for example, approximately 14% of California teachers are underqualified and working on emergency permits without full credentials (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 2000)—it is unlikely that optimal teaching assignments for novices will be a high priority.


During his tenure as president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker (1985) proposed that, unlike many problems, the misassignment of teachers is neither complex nor intractable. The problem could be solved by requiring that teachers be assigned only to classes and subject areas for which they are legally credentialed. Although the issue may appear straightforward, teacher misassignment is much more complex than it appears, thus contributing to the enduring nature of the problem. There are three key factors that complicate the issue. First, there is no accepted definition of out-of-field teaching. Albert Shanker seems to adopt a definition based on whether or not a teacher is legally licensed or certified to teach in particular fields. However, researchers, such as Ingersoll (1999), often focus not on legal certification but on the number of teachers who have neither a major nor a minor in their teaching fields. Second, the certification requirements across states vary widely. For example, all 50 states require that prospective high school teachers have a subject-specific secondary license, but only 23 states require them to earn an undergraduate major or complete the equivalent number of courses in the subjects they plan to teach (Jerald & Boser, 2000). Moreover, the requirements for middle school teachers differ significantly from those of high school teachers; only two states require that all middle school teachers have completed college majors in their subject areas (Jerald & Boser, 2000). Third, even when teachers have completed an undergraduate major and are legally licensed in a field, they may find themselves ill prepared to teach particular courses within their designated subject area. For example, a licensed social studies teacher with a history degree could be assigned to teach an economics course within his or her department and have no more subject-matter background in economics than the music teacher.

Rather than conceptualizing out-of-field teaching in definitive terms, we may be better served by considering teacher misassignment, as well as teaching assignments generally, as a matter of goodness of fit.1 A common term in statistics, goodness of fit refers to the process of determining how well your observations and data fit your theory. In statistics, goodness of fit is used to take into account complex relationships in which there is not a simple answer. Applied to teaching assignments, goodness of fit would extend beyond minimum subject-matter qualifications and varying state certification requirements to take into account the relationship among teacher characteristics, contextual characteristics, and teaching placements. Using a goodness of fit approach in making out-of-field assignments would lead to decisions based on more relevant factors than lack of seniority or general willingness.

In determining goodness of fit for teaching assignments, both teacher characteristics and contextual characteristics are considerations. Teacher characteristics, which influence the appropriateness of a teaching assignment, include the following:

subject-matter background,

pedagogical skills,

teaching experience,

personal goals and circumstances, and

beliefs about teaching, learners, and subject matter.

Contextual characteristics include the following:

subject matter of class assignment,

student characteristics,

time constraints,

curricular materials,

collegial support, and

available resources.

When we apply a definition based on subject-area certification to our case study teachers, David is appropriately assigned, and Brian is misassigned. When we apply a definition based on undergraduate subject-area majors, David is again appropriately assigned, and Brian is misassigned. However, if we apply a goodness of fit approach, neither David nor Brian would be considered appropriately assigned. In terms of goodness of fit, David would not be assigned to four preparations as a 1st-year teacher, and Brian would not be encouraged or allowed to teach out of field in his 1st year. However, as a more experienced teacher, and if offered greater collegial support and resources, Brian might be a fitting choice for an out-of-field assignment given his subject-matter background, pedagogical skills, and personal interest.


The findings of this exploratory study begin to question three interconnected assumptions regarding teacher misassignment. The first assumption is that meeting licensing or certification requirements qualifies teachers to teach in particular fields. These case studies illustrate that a teaching credential or an undergraduate major in a field does not guarantee a good fit between teacher and class assignment. Like David, teachers may be credentialed and meet state standards but are not necessarily qualified for their assigned courses or overall teaching loads. Conversely, the lack of a teaching credential or undergraduate major does not automatically preclude competent teaching.

A second assumption is that teacher misassignment is a straightforward and easily solved issue. In contrast to Albert Shanker, we propose that teacher misassignment is indeed a complex issue that is not easily solved through requirements based solely on licensing of teachers. The experiences of David and Brian suggest that teacher misassignment extends beyond out-of-field teaching and includes individual and contextual factors. In addition, out-of-field teaching may be more a matter of degrees rather than an all-or-none proposition.

The third assumption relates to the nature of research on out-of-field teaching. If the issue is straightforward and the solution connected to certification, then research focused on the extent of the situation and reasons it occurs may be sufficient. If, as this exploratory study suggests, the problem is more complex, then the focus of the research needs to be expanded. Before the issue can be adequately addressed, we need to learn more about the complexities of teacher assignment and the effects of misassignment on both teachers and students. We need to know more about what happens in the classrooms of misassigned teachers and how to support their efforts. We need to examine the consequences of union contracts and informal agreements that base teaching assignments on seniority. Our views about the obvious consequences of out-of-field teaching and of what constitutes teacher misassignment may be incomplete.

Effective teaching does not depend solely on a teacher’s subject-matter background, the completion of credential requirements, or the nature of the teaching assignment. Yet each of these factors is an important part of the whole. The complexity of teaching negates the value of single solutions to enhancing teacher quality. Identifying qualified teachers is clearly essential to promoting quality classroom instruction, but the multifaceted problem demands a multifaceted solution.


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CATHY RINGSTAFF is a senior research associate at WestEd in San Francisco, California. Her research interests include standards-based reform, whole-school change, and technology in education. She is coauthor, with Judith Haymore Sandholtz and David Dwyer, of Teaching with Technology: Creating Student-Centered Classrooms (Teachers College Press).

JUDITH HAYMORE SANDHOLTZ is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, where she directed the Comprehensive Teacher Education Institute. She is a 2001-2002 Carnegie Scholar. Her research focuses on teacher professional development, teacher education, school/university partnerships, and technology in education. She is coauthor, with Cathy Ringstaff and David Dwyer, of Teaching with Technology: Creating Student-Centered Classrooms (Teachers College Press).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 4, 2002, p. 812-841
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10894, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 5:26:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Cathy Ringstaff
    E-mail Author
    CATHY RINGSTAFF is a senior research associate at WestEd in San Francisco, California. Her research interests include standards-based reform, whole-school change, and technology in education. She is coauthor, with Judith Haymore Sandholtz and David Dwyer, of Teaching with Technology: Creating Student-Centered Classrooms (Teachers College Press).
  • Judith Sandholtz
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    JUDITH HAYMORE SANDHOLTZ is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside where she formerly directed the Comprehensive Teacher Education Institute. Her research focuses on teacher professional development, teacher education, school/university partnerships, and technology in education. Recent publications include ‘‘Inservice Training or Professional Development: Contrasting Opportunities in a School/University Partnership’’ in Teaching and Teacher Education and ‘‘The Substantive and Symbolic Consequences of a District’s Standards-Based Curriculum’’ in the American Educational Research Journal.
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