Changing World Demands Teachers with more Specialization in Early Grades

December 9, 2014

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s global rankings, U.S. teenagers dipped in all major subject categories between 2009 and 2012, sliding from 11th to 21st in Reading, 20th to 24th in Science, and 25th to 31st in Math.

In order for this trend to reverse, elementary schools, where the foundations of each subject is established, need to adjust to the increasing demands of a changing educational landscape.

During The Great Depression era only half of all 13-17 year-olds attended high school and many of them didn’t graduate.  A select few pursued advanced degrees.  Today, 85-90% of U.S. students receive some post-secondary education.

Although our students’ academic expectations are drastically higher now than they were in the 1920s and 1930s, little has changed in the model by which they receive instruction.

Most elementary school teachers arrive to work at least 15-20 minutes early to prepare for their day.  Over the next eight hours, they teach four or five subjects, grade papers, and respond to 30-45 minutes of administrative and parental emails.

With the exception of emailing, this routine is not all that different than what primary school teachers have been doing for the past 85 years.

By four o’clock, good teachers are physically and emotionally tired, but still have lesson plans to write and/or modify according to the day’s student outcomes.

How they spend their remaining planning time becomes a choice.  Unable to give each lesson the care that it deserves, teachers can choose to focus on some lesson(s) and neglect others or spread the planning evenly.  Either way, some (and possibly all) of their lessons get shortchanged.

Under this structure, elementary school teachers become masters of systematizing and surviving school days within their first couple years on the job, but spend entire careers attempting - and in many cases failing - to become master content educators.

Strong lesson planning is essential to delivering great instruction.  Consistently great instruction is the catalyst of a well-educated student body.  Requiring elementary school teachers to deliver outstanding Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science lessons on a daily basis is unreasonable.  It’s also inefficient use of teachers’ time and energy.

The highly successful Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) in Philadelphia is one of the few schools in the nation that implements Math and Language Arts specialization in first through sixth grades.  Each specialist delivers the same lessons twice/day and thus prepares half as many lessons as their generalist contemporaries in other schools.

FACTS teachers likely spend the same amount of time planning lessons as they would if they were generalists, but with fewer lessons to teach they’re able to plan with greater depth and acuity.  As a result, FACTS students rarely receive a lesson that isn’t thoughtfully prepared by a master educator, or a teacher who is on a fast track to becoming one.

With fewer teachers influencing Math and Language Arts, professional development is more streamlined, and thus deeper and better focused.  Instruction, in turn, becomes more consistent, leading to greater program coherency across the grade levels.  The end product is superior education.

During the early half of the 20th century, the U.S. was shifting from rural, agrarian communities to a more urbanized, industrial way of life.  To meet the demands of a more educated citizenry, progressive educators saw the need to shift from one-room schoolhouses to institutions where children learned exclusively with grade level peers.

It’s time that our school systems again adjust to a changing world.

The 21st century has ushered in a globalized, technological society and - with it – the demand for a more specialized workforce.  If our children are to reach the higher levels of education necessary to fill these jobs, and thus compete in the global marketplace, then elementary school teaching must also become a profession of content experts.

Until this happens, our international rankings aren’t likely to change.