Do specialized teaching roles help or hurt students?

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Jun 26, 2018

The success of our schools—and of our education system at large—hinges on teachers. From decades of research we know that teachers influence student outcomes more than anything else a school has to offer. Given the importance of teachers, many of the prominent ideas for improving education focus on increasing teacher impact through better recruitment, preparation, and development or through giving teachers better tools and resources. Yet perhaps one of the best ways to expand teacher impact doesn’t require extensive reform or new technology.

For some time, I’ve wondered if schools might help their teachers accomplish more by allowing them to focus more narrowly on what they do. This idea isn’t new to education. Middle and high school teachers already specialize by subject so they can hone deep expertise in teaching particular content areas. But what if schools took this idea a step further by having teachers specialize not just by subject, but by the roles they fulfill in the classroom?

Teaching is a multifaceted job that might benefit from some streamlining. In addition to being content instructors (often in multiple content areas), we also expect teachers to be curriculum designers, assessment creators, and experts at evaluating student work and analyzing student learning data, not to mention experts in classroom management and culture, coaching students on self-management, providing students with social and emotional support, and being the primary school connection with parents and families. Add all these tasks to a teacher’s pack of responsibility, and the burden becomes exhausting, if not crushing. Not only is it hard to get really good at any particular area of responsibility when juggling so much, but teachers likely lose a lot of time and energy switching between different tasks and trying to plan and prioritize all the things they need to do.

When we launched our innovative staffing research last year with Public Impact, I looked forward to using that work to gauge whether role specialization might be an effective method for increasing teacher impact. Our research methods would not tell us if specialization caused gains in student achievement or wellbeing. But if we could find schools that were divvying up typical teacher responsibilities across multiple roles, those examples would suggest that specialization might be worthwhile.

Our research led to visits and interviews with eight pioneering district, charter, and private schools and school networks to learn about how they used blended learning and new staffing arrangements to personalize instruction. Among those schools, many used specialized educator roles. For example, the teachers at two elementary school networks specialized in either English language arts or math. Some schools created specialized data-analysis roles for teachers apart from classroom teaching. One school shifted all the lesson planning for an entire team of classroom teachers to one lead educator. And at one school, math teachers specialized in either content instruction or in monitoring and supporting students’ individual progress through a mastery-based curriculum. These examples deliver tentative evidence that role specialization may be a worthwhile practice.

But before we conclude that all schools should start creating more specialized roles, we also have to wrestle with some anomalies. First, many of the schools we studied didn’t point to benefits of specialization as their main rationale for creating new roles and teams. Some developed new educator roles primarily to provide teachers with career progression opportunities and to expand the influence of their best teachers to more students. Other schools created non-certified support staff roles as a budget-friendly approach for increasing adult support for students. A few schools also created team teaching arrangements to give students more adult connection. Importantly, many of the roles and staffing arrangements at the schools we studied maintained most or all of the responsibilities that typically land on teachers’ plates.

In short, we did find some examples of role specialization, but it was not nearly as common or extensive as I hoped to see at the outset. How might we reconcile the theoretical benefits of specialization with the current evidence? Why didn’t the innovative schools we studied turn more to specialization to expand the impact of their teachers? Here are a few hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Specialization requires too much coordination

The time and effort to coordinate work across specialized roles may outweigh the benefits that come from specialization. When high school teachers specialize by content area, coordination is simple: separated classrooms, bell schedules, and course content standards let teachers do their work without much need for collaboration. In contrast, if teachers were to specialize across responsibilities such as lesson planning, assessment design, and data analysis, the educators in these roles would likely need to communicate on a fairly regular basis about the progress of classroom instruction and student learning needs. Given that we don’t yet have efficient tools and processes for coordinating work across these hypothetical roles, the collaboration that further specialization would entail may simply be too time consuming to be worthwhile.

Hypothesis 2: Specialization hurts student/teacher relationships

Perhaps the benefits of specialization are outweighed by negative impacts on students’ sense of connectedness. When specialization means that educators work with more students on a given day, it will be harder for those educators to form strong relationships with each student. Additionally, students likely feel less supported if their interactions with adults at school entail many brief encounters and handoffs that never allow for substantive interaction. Harvard economist Roland Fryer landed on this hypothesis after studying elementary schools where teachers specialized by content area and finding that specialized roles hindered student achievement. Likewise, Roots Elementary, a charter school in Denver, decided to pull back from having students rotate between instruction from multiple adults because the arrangement detracted from the staff’s ability to support students’ social and emotional needs. (Assuming specialization negatively impacts students’ sense of support and connectedness, I think there are ways to mitigate this downside to specialization using blended learning. But I’ll have to elaborate on those ideas in another post.)

Hypothesis 3: Innovator’s dilemmas keep schools from having teachers specialize

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen explained why companies often fail to adopt market-transforming innovations: new innovations, despite their clear benefits, are often incongruent with  an organization’s established practices and priorities. This is why RCA lagged behind Sony in developing solid-state electronics, why Walmart has floundered in the face of Amazon at developing online retail channels, and why taxi companies struggle to offer the convenience and affordability of Uber.

I suspect that this same phenomenon may keep schools from figuring out how to separate teaching into more specialized roles. Most schools’ instructional practices are hewn from the time-proven model of assigning teachers to classes of 25 students and then putting those teachers in charge of all the curriculum planning, lesson planning, classroom management, assessment, and data analysis for their classes. From that starting point, it’s hard to make a rational argument for throwing that working model out and fumbling along as you figure out how to divide up and coordinate responsibilities across new roles, while also working to mitigate any negative impacts on students’ sense of connectedness. It may very well be that specialization can work, but just won’t emerge from schools that start with the one-teacher-per-classroom model as their template.

If you’ve made it this far through this post, I’m eager to hear what you think. Do your experiences provide additional evidence for any of the hypotheses above? Do you have other potential explanations for why schools aren’t working to expand teachers’ impact by allowing them to have more focused responsibilities? Do you have ideas on how schools might overcome their constraints to make specialization work? Please share your thoughts by commenting below or starting a conversation with me on Twitter (@ArnettTom). Or if you’re in a hurry, let us know what you think about teacher role specialization by answering this poll:

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.