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Teaching in the 21st Century: A Division of Labor in Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Candi Choi
October 1, 2018

Public Education’s role is to prepare students for the next level of knowledge, intentionally with an indepth understanding of individual capabilities. Rarely are all people capable of the same things at the same time and it’s difficult to plan around. With specialized expertise in the subject matter a teacher can easily identify student capabilities and challenge limitations and setbacks. Instead of leaning into those limits, folks have changed grading policies, testing strategies and class placements. Humans at a young age have a desire to test logic by questioning and identifying problems through gathering, assessing, creating, concluding and relating it to other forms. Based on the consequences from practice, application and experience in doing these things humans begin to initiate logic and critical thinking while building upon their knowledge. For instance, children often change their behavior (or rationalize feelings) to gain different outcomes (ex: talking calmly instead of throwing tantrum, being assertive during uncomfortable situations).

Specialized teachers are better equipped to tailor lessons adaptable to individual characteristics and capabilities. Consider Adam Smith’s explanation of division of labor in his book “Wealth of Nations.” This would remove Education as a field or degree and replace it with concentration on subject matter. Much like an Art teacher who is specialized in the field of Art by study and practice. Or, a Mathematician who received a degree in the concentration of Mathematics. Being experts in their specific field by foremost a specialized study equips teachers with a proprietary lever to assess student capabilities and characteristics. To which, they will challenge further where the student requires challenge and advance where the student can advance.

More and more, administrators encourage teachers to sit in trainings that teach them “how to teach” or “classroom management strategies” instead of enhancing expertise in subject matter. According to a recent TNTP study, some school districts spend “nearly $18,000 per teacher per year” for training and development. While teachers had “spent approximately 19 hours a school year” attending them. The study also supported by other federally funded studies. Trainings take time and money from teachers where it could be spent on specific subject knowledge to be transferred back into the classroom. It’s a problem that enables students to make their own will more prominent in classrooms than specialized knowledge led by critical thinking and logical reasoning.

Strong backboned leadership provides examples of responsibility and assertiveness to students. Failing a student doesn’t mean he/she is incapable of being successful at some point. It simply means that the student learns a vital lesson through an experience: there are consequences to certain behaviors, change the behavior so the consequence gets better.  Can you recall a teacher who would fail students that show up to class, participate, learn from previous error, and/or question until they get the concept? These practices, applications and experiences turn anxieties of error into well-guided success stories. When speaking of psychological safety in his book “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” Edgar H. Schein mentions, “the goals of learning are non-negotiable, but the method of learning can be highly individualized.” To which, we can apply rule setting and qualify subject matter specialization in schools.

Students are being strung along a murky foundation and the result is 21st Century apathy. Today, learning often looks like flashy innovative technologies. Meanwhile, students “misclassified” with a disability are considered disabled under school 504 plans that provide accommodations like extended time for tests or additional breaks during class. According to teachers, high performing students are thought by administrators to be “able to do the work without guidance.” The students are disregarded from further challenge or advancements. The lines are blurred between advanced, general and special learning students. There is a difference because individual human capacities require it. Even two children with the same genetic makeup and up-bringing have very different characteristics and capabilities. Let’s stop limiting the developing brain.

If doing poorly in school, is an advanced class or a passing grade well-deserved? Across Virginia, public high schools have incorporated Algebra, Functions & Data Analysis (AFDA) class. According to teachers there, it was intended to help students recover from poor achievement. Now, schools are using it as a “credit recovery” class. In such instances, the student hasn’t passed algebra SOL but passed the algebra class, or vice versa. Then, placed into Geometry class, and failed the Geometry SOL but passed the class. The student is then placed into AFDA with a comprehension considered to be between Geometry-Algebra 2. The subject matter in AFDA is actually Algebra. It’s a repeat of the initial Algebra class, but now with less authenticity and more process between steps. Proving an inadequate understanding of capabilities and ill-intentioned preparation for the next level in the subject.

Schools are lacking authenticity in consequences and subject matter. Each level of education requires a prior layer of foundational knowledge to build upon. If a layer is missing, the whole institution suffers. Reciprocal knowledge, interest and conceptualization is necessary, more-so than compromising and negotiating grades, policies and assessments on students’ behalf. For education to be functional all individual components must do their part. Let’s fix the disfunction with long lasting innovations that surpass technology. Like, a division of labor in education where each subject taught is a specialization of the teacher and a foundation to the next layer. Enhance subject knowledge by tapping into the expertise and interests of teachers and subordinate students to challenges and achievements.


Author: Candi Choi holds an MPA with specialization in local government management. She has experience with local budgeting, planning and constituent affairs. Contact her via email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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