Monday, May 2, 2016

Teacher subject specialization in elementary schools has a negative impact

A randomized field experiment in fifty traditional public elementary schools in Houston, Texas was designed to test the potential productivity benefits of teacher specialization in schools. Treatment schools altered their schedules to have teachers specialize in a subset of subjects in which they have demonstrated relative strength (based on value-add measures and principal observations).

The average impact of teacher specialization on student achievement is -0.042 standard deviations in math and -0.034 standard deviations in reading, per year. Students enrolled in special education and those with younger teachers demonstrated marked negative results.

The author argues that the results are consistent with a model in which the benefits of specialization driven by sorting teachers into a subset of subjects based on comparative advantage is outweighed by inefficient pedagogy due to having fewer interactions with each student. Consistent with this, specialized teachers report providing less attention to individual students (relative to non-specialized teachers), though other mechanisms are possible.

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