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Should Elementary School Teachers Become Single-Subject Specialists?

A math major might be better at teaching fractions to third graders than someone who majored in art history.

Converting public schools into charters and increasing standardized testing are go-to approaches for closing the achievement gap here in the United States, but education reformers across the pond in the U.K. are taking a radically different approach. According to The Telegraph, British Education Secretary Michael Gove recently announced plans to change the number of subjects elementary school teachers are required to teach. Grade school educators will no longer be generalists who teach English, math, science, and history, but will become more like high school teachers—specialists trained in a particular subject.

Gove says the reform will help level the playing field between students attending public school and those enrolled in private school, where teachers often are single-subject specialists. The idea is to ensure that teachers are well versed in the content they're teaching and can focus their efforts on one academic area.

Research shows myriad benefits to having subject-specific specialists teaching elementary students. Someone who was a math major, for example, might not be as comfortable with the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation—or as skilled in teaching kids how to write—as a teacher who majored in English. And a teacher who majored in art history might pass her math anxiety along to students.

But there are already huge shortages of math and science teachers, and those who do enter the profession are frequently lured away by more lucrative job offers, so it’s a lofty goal to have enough subject specialists at every grade school. To address this challenge, as of next year the British government will award scholarships of up to $32,000 to top students who pursue degrees in science and math and commit to becoming teachers. Teachers will be able to earn additional financial bonuses over the years for staying in the profession.

Of course, whether educators are teaching single or multiple subjects is only one piece of the education reform puzzle. "Teachers need to be given greater control over what goes on in the classroom," Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told The Telegraph. She says teachers need a reduction in their "unnecessary bureaucratic workload," and "pay and conditions need to remain competitive." If those things don't change, it's not likely that the best and brightest will want to go into teaching, no matter what they majored in.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user woodleywonderworks

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