“There’s a generalist approach to primary education that says subject expertise isn’t really important, that the general level of content knowledge that most adults have is enough to prepare them to be elementary school teachers, but no high achieving country would agree.”
Ben Jensen, researcher at National Center on Education and the Economy
I ran across this piece while researching Finland’s educational system for the last post and it was too good to pass by.
The subject of the piece was Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a policy institute that studies what America can learn from the world’s best-performing education systems. His job is to see how other, successful countries are educating their children and recommend changes to the U.S. system. And what he wants to see are changes in the way we recruit and educate teachers.
He makes some assertions that I couldn’t substantiate, such as stating that we recruit teachers from the bottom half of college graduating classes. I googled this several different ways, but couldn’t find corroboration for that statement. So maybe we do, maybe we don’t. I know that my children’s district of about 5,000 students always waits until July to start interviewing, by which point many of the best candidates are already hired. But that’s one small district and not representative of the nation as a whole. If it happens, and I’m sure it does, I doubt it’s common or even acknowledged practice.
His real issue, though, is with elementary teachers as generalists. In Tucker’s view, a generalist lacks the deep conceptual knowledge necessary to teach children effectively. What he would like to see is teachers trained in highly specific content: 4th grade fractions, say, or 1st grade subtraction. This, he contends, is how the most successful systems do it: they give their teachers a rich understanding of the content that the teachers can then pass on to the students.
A report issued by Tucker’s organization agrees. The report calls for 4 major shifts in teacher recruitment and training:
- Make teaching programs more selective and harder to get into;
- Require teachers in elementary to specialize like secondary teachers, a practice that is common in other high-achieving countries;
- Teach the teachers deeply the content they will teach; and
- Structure professional learning communities so that experienced teachers train newer teachers for the first few years of their careers.
Interestingly, a representative of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, while deploring the tone of the report, agrees with the general premise that something is lacking in our teacher training programs and it’s not the intelligence of the teachers it produces. She also mentions that they are beginning to see districts that want documentation of a candidate’s ability to teach. I know teacher training has moved on from its early roots, but it does make me wonder if the iconic one-room schoolhouse model with the teacher as supreme generalist is still influencing our expectations of elementary education.