A fascinating abstract from Roland Fryer. In many school systems you have a single teacher for most subjects in primary school, but increasingly specialised different teachers for each subject in secondary school. This RCT tried out having subject specialist teachers in primary, finding that this worsened outcomes, in theory because at least at primary level it is more important that the teacher knows the kids’ and their ability and is therefore better able to target their teaching, than that they have more specialised knowledge of the subject matter.
Starting in the 2013-2014 school year, I conducted a randomized field experiment in fifty traditional public elementary schools in Houston, Texas 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. I argue 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.