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Specialist Teachers in Elementary Classrooms?

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Strange question? Although most in the U.S. would prefer not to have China's all-controlling exam system, we covet the high scores of that country's students. We then decry our students' test scores, lamenting our "failing schools" and chastising teachers. Why can't we excel like they do?

Well, there's a dilemma tied to these questions. In elementary school in China, the teachers are subject specialists. The math teachers teach math, the reading and writing teachers teach reading and writing, the English teachers teach English, the drawing teachers teach drawing. You get the idea. They are specialists, not just in the subject, but in how to teach their subject. And, unlike their American counterparts, they are provided hundreds of hours to develop successful lessons. Hundreds. It turns out the Chinese elementary school teachers teach only three to four classes a day. The rest of the day they collaborate with each other, correct papers, and observe and critique each others' teaching. I've spent over 20 years observing and consulting in American and Chinese schools, and this is the most startling difference between the two systems (Pine 2012).

In contrast to the reality of the Chinese teaching profession, American elementary school teachers teach all subjects -- reading, writing, math, social studies, health, science, art (if there is any) and often P.E. There is no way they can specialize in one subject; they are generalists. The new core curriculum standards, especially in math, require profound professional development to provide teachers with the necessary mathematical understandings to help students comprehend concepts well. [Wu article] However, U.S. teacher schedules and district structures, not to mention budgets, do not allow for such in-depth professional development.

Yet there is another issue to be considered before rushing toward a Chinese professional development model. The Chinese teachers do not know their students well, at all. They teach a group of students for 45 minutes and then move on to the next group. Similar to the schedules of U.S. high school teachers. In contrast, American elementary teachers are with the same class of children all day. They know the children's strengths and needs, what interests them and what needs more encouragement. They know how their siblings are doing and whether they are hungry. Being a generalist means U.S. teachers know the whole child fairly well and can respond to that child in subtle ways that can be helpful. The Chinese schools have teachers who oversee each class and try to fulfill this role. But they are only in the classroom during class breaks and sometimes during a short homeroom period, so their knowledge of individual children is fairly superficial.

Although it's tempting to push for more specialization for individual teachers, there is something to be said for knowing the whole person in the elementary school setting. The answers are not at all straight forward. Our elementary teachers need more subject knowledge depth, but it is impossible for them to have that depth in all fields. There may be a way to infuse subject matter specialists and knowledge into schools and classrooms without losing that whole-child knowledge that is fundamental to our schooling. Some schools may have managed to find this, but in general we still need to think it through thoroughly. In the process we need to value the positive in our schools while seeking new structural configurations.