01 02 03 Institute for Effective Education, University of York: Specialist teachers in primary schools 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Specialist teachers in primary schools

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Would primary schools be more successful if, like secondary schools, they used specialist teachers for particular classes?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports on an experiment that tried to establish just that. In Houston, Texas, 50 elementary schools were randomised into treatment or control groups. Treatment schools altered their timetables to have teachers specialise in subjects such as maths, science, social studies, and reading based on each teacher’s strengths (assessed by the school principal). A class might be taught by one teacher for maths and science, and another for reading and social studies. Other classes had one teacher for maths, another for reading, and a third for science and social studies.

The results were negative. In the first year, schools with specialist teachers saw an effect size of -0.07 on maths and reading achievement. Over the first two years, the effect size was -0.05 for maths and -0.04 for reading, with the maths result statistically significant. For children in special education, the results were even worse, with an impact of -0.15 for reading and -0.20 for maths.

A teacher survey measured views on lesson planning, teacher relationships with students, enjoyment of teaching, and teaching strategies. Teachers in treatment schools were significantly less likely to report providing tailored instruction for their students. All other survey outcomes on teaching strategy were statistically identical between treatment and control.

Source: The 'Pupil' Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools, National Bureau of Economic Research (2016)

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