Having Elementary Teachers Specialize Probably Isn’t a Good Thing

Chalkbeat reported on a New York City Schools initiative to have more elementary school teachers specialize in math; an effort geared toward making more students ready to take Algebra.

Two recent studies released, Chalkbeat notes, indicate this will likely hurt more than it helps.

Chalkbeat‘s Alex Zimmerman writes:

The expansion comes as accumulating research casts doubt on the approach. A study recently published by the peer-reviewed American Economic Review found that students perform worse on both high- and low-stakes tests after elementary school teachers specialized in subjects including math.

To measure the effects of reconfiguring elementary school teaching, Roland Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard who has studied schools extensively, randomly assigned 23 Houston elementary schools to departmentalize instruction in math, science, social studies, and reading.

At those schools, principals assigned teachers to teach what observations and statistical measures suggested were their strongest subjects. But after two years of specialized instruction, students lost over a month of learning compared with their peers who attended schools that did not make the changes.

Zimmerman discusses another study:

A second recent study based on statewide data from North Carolina also points to the potential pitfalls of specialization. That research, which has not been formally peer reviewed, looked at teachers who transitioned from being general classroom teachers to specialists and compared the effect on student test scores.

While the researchers found some positive effects in science, specialization hurt student learning in many subjects and grade levels — including fifth grade math.

“This is the second study — in different locations and with different research designs — to show some negative results for subject-area specialization,” write Kevin Bastian, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, and Kevin Fortner, of Georgia State University. “It is fair to conclude that specialization is not yet leading to its theorized payoff.”

Read the whole thing.

NYC Schools told Zimmerman that what those studies found is not true in New York City, and they cited a non-peer reviewed study whose author said was theoretical. (This is what “evidence-based” apparently now means.)

Another instance of dataless reform, but sure, jump right in.

2 thoughts on “Having Elementary Teachers Specialize Probably Isn’t a Good Thing

  1. What seems to be missing is ability grouping the kids in elementary. The complaint is that teachers couldn’t customize teaching for different students but that implies that middle and high school teachers can. The reality is that you need less customizing when kids are grouped by taking “senior math” while others are taking calculus.

  2. These are pretty small scale studies, and they do point out flaws. But it makes sense that little children do thrive with a single nuturing teacher in a small class, similar to being with their mother. However I wonder if it’s better for a very small child who is gifted to have a specialist work with them instead of going off to secondary school or college where they’re super vulnerable? It may be helpful in some circumstances, more research needs to be done.

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