It seems an obvious premise: provide primary children with subject specialists in maths and English, and watch their results in those subjects improve.
But a new study has revealed that, in fact, the opposite happens: primary pupils who are given subject-specialist teachers in English and maths see their grades decrease.
Roland Fryer, faculty director of Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, conducted an experiment with 50 elementary schools in Houston, Texas. Schools adjusted their timetables to allow for specialist teaching in maths, science, social studies or reading. Specialist teachers saw pupils only for their allocated subjects.
However, rather than improving academic outcomes in these subjects, specialist teaching had a negative impact on pupils’ grades in maths and reading. On average, specialist teachers were 6 per cent less effective than their non-specialist colleagues.
And this new form of teaching had a broader impact, too. “Teacher specialisation…decreases student achievement, decreases student attendance and increases student behavioural problems,” Professor Fryer wrote, in a paper published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research.
Two of education’s most influential academics have said that the findings were unexpected. Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the UCL Institute of Education, tweeted in response: “OK – this was a surprise. Because students taught by teachers who were better at teaching maths did worse in maths.”
Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, agreed. “What teachers of the early grades are being asked to do is quite daunting,” he told TES.
“It’s not just about knowing the simple mathematics that you’re asking children to learn, but having a deep knowledge of it.
“The natural assumption is that, if teachers know their subject more deeply, then their students will learn it more effectively.” Of the 34 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only 10 use specialist teachers in primary-school classrooms.
Six countries are even further from specialisation, with teachers remaining with the same group of pupils for at least three years.
Earning pupils’ trust
James Bowen, of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said it was very uncommon for British primaries to provide specialised teaching. The exception tends to be when the teachers of two-form entry schools teach one another’s classes for certain subjects.
“Particularly with younger children, knowledge of child development and how children learn is just as important as subject specialism,” he said. “It’s so important, at primary level, to have a sustained relationship with the children you teach. Getting to know those children really, really well…makes up for the lack of subject specialism.”
Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, said that the new research highlighted the importance of the teacher-pupil relationship. That, in turn, raised “more general questions about [the wisdom of] teacher job shares” and setting by ability in infant schools, she added.
Professor Willingham agreed. He drew on research showing that, when children are younger, their relationship with their teacher plays a key role in determining how effectively they learn. “As you get older, you become more resourceful in learning from people who you just don’t like very much,” he said.
“You know that you don’t want to go out for a beer with this person, but that he really understands mathematics. If children don’t trust someone or don’t get along with them, they can’t overlook it. Most children will have difficulty learning from that adult.” Professor Fryer found that, because the numbers of specialist teachers were limited, they tended to teach larger groups. The result, he wrote, was “inefficient pedagogy”, resulting from fewer interactions with each pupil.
Professor Willingham said that the larger the class, the less likely teachers were to provide individualised tuition. “The teacher can’t get to know all the students nearly as well if they’re seeing 140 of them,” he said.
Mr Bowen believes that the research also raises questions about whether pupils might benefit from more time with non-specialist teachers through into secondary school.
“Obviously, the higher you go, the greater the need for specialisation,” he said. “You would expect a child doing A-level maths to be taught by a maths specialist. But what’s sensible is looking for a greater degree of continuity between Years 6 and 7. Some schools are looking at bringing in a primary model for the first term of Year 7.”
Effective subject teaching
Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, offers two suggestions to improve subject teaching at primary school without any adverse effects:
A single teacher Primary teachers should think specifically about which subjects might require a specialist teacher, and then focus their professional-development time on bolstering their knowledge in those subjects.
Specialist teachers Specialist teachers should bear in mind the importance of connecting with their pupils. They should, therefore, devote their professional-development time to enhancing their emotional sensitivity and empathy.