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Subject Matter Expertise Is Not Enough

In an attempt to improve schools, reformers persistently stress the importance of subject matter expertise, asserting that it is "an effective indicator of teacher quality" ("Teacher Testing Does Not Equal Teacher Quality," The American Spectator, Jul. 7). 

According to the article, scholarly studies have identified four factors that predict instructional success: subject-matter knowledge, academic ability, experience and professional certification and training. Of the four, certifications have mixed predictive value because they vary widely from state to state.

If I had not taught for 28 years in a public high school, I probably would buy the argument. But I think it is out of touch with reality.  It's not that subject matter expertise is not important.  Of course it is.  But if it is the No. 1 factor, then all professors with doctorates in their respective fields would be extraordinarily effective in a public-school classroom. Yet I maintain that they wouldn't last more than a few weeks because they lack pedagogical expertise.

It's not enough to know one's subject.  One has to know how to teach it.  Talking is not teaching. Yet that's how most professors conduct their classes: They lecture.  How long would their public-school students tolerate this approach before rebelling?  Schools of education have rightly drawn criticism for requiring courses with little relevance to the classroom.  But if they were all abolished tomorrow in the belief that subject-matter expertise is sufficient for success, it would soon become apparent that the issue has been poorly understood.

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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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