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Is Subject Matter Expertise Enough for Successful Teaching?

A new report by the non-profit Education Trust found that more than 15 percent of secondary school teachers were teaching outside their areas of expertise in the 2007-08 school year. Although this is a decrease from about 17 percent four years earlier, the finding is still disturbing. Yet there is more to the story than initially meets the eye.

If knowledge of subject matter were the most important factor in delivering a quality education, then professors with doctorates and a long list of publications in their field would make ideal candidates for K-12, as I wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 3 ("You get what you pay for"). After all, they certainly possess expertise in their subject. But what most of them lack is pedagogical competence. That's why they wouldn't last very long in a public school classroom.

This point was underscored by a letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal from a former student at the famed Juillaird School at Columbia University. He wrote: "It is far more important for a piano student to have good pedagogy in order to develop, rather than being coached by a great artist" ("Good Teaching Builds on Genius," Dec. 18).

The reasons can be appreciated only by those who have taught in a public school. (Private and religious schools don't require teachers to possess a credential, probably because they are composed of students whose parents have chosen these schools. As a result, students there tend to be more motivated.) Unless teachers know how to engage their students in the lessons they have prepared, expertise in the subject matter counts for very little.

Nevertheless, in the recognition that courses required for licensing too often are disconnected from the realities of the classroom, the 1,400 colleges of education across the country are contemplating placing more emphasis on clinical training and less on theoretical courses. It's essentially the basis for Teach For America's appeal in the U.S. and for Education Secretary Michael Gove's White Paper in England ("Tougher numeracy and literacy tests - and that's just for the teachers," The Independent, Nov. 25).

There will always be a few teacher candidates who are naturals. They seem to have been born with the ability to interest their students in any topic in their field. But these are rare exceptions. The overwhelming majority need help to develop the wherewithal for success in the rapidly changing classrooms in this country.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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