Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la formation et la profession enseignante (CRIFPE)

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Jensen, B., Roberts-Hull, K., Magee, J. & Ginnivan, L. (2016). Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems. Washington D.C. : National Center on Education and the Economy.




Concerns about inadequate development of subject expertise for American elementary school teachers have been well documented. Issues have been identified at every step along the teacher development pathway:

• Teacher education programs are relatively unselective, meaning that the preexisting math, science, and literacy expertise of entrants is generally not strong.

• Teacher education programs then spend minimal time developing teacher subject expertise and have course assessments that do not require deep knowledge or skill.

• Once they have graduated from teacher education, prospective teachers may have to take some exams, but these are minimally challenging.

• When applying for jobs, adequate subject expertise is often not an important factor in the hiring process.

• When in the classroom, American teachers are often without the required support, meaningful subject-specific professional learning, and high-quality instructional materials, all of which aid subject expertise development in high-performing countries.

There are many exceptions to this narrative, and there are many exemplary U.S. teacher preparation programs. However, it is clear that, overall, the preparation of elementary teachers in the United States in key subject areas has been inadequate.7

Given the importance of quality teaching to student learning, it is not hard to draw a line between these issues and poor performance in student outcomes. So what are systems that have high-performing learning outcomes in key subjects doing to ensure quality teaching in math, science and literacy?

This report analyses whether and how high-performing systems have supported the subject expertise of their elementary school teachers.

The findings highlight how different parts of these systems constantly reinforce the development of deep subject expertise in their elementary teachers. For example, these systems have:

1. Teachers selected for the specific knowledge and skills that make an effective elementary teacher.

2. Initial teacher education that is focused on how to teach the elementary school curriculum.

3. Instructional supports which develop deep subject expertise in teachers.

4. Professional development and mentoring from teacher subject experts who have been promoted to these positions because of both their subject expertise and ability to help other teachers.

5. Recognition and promotion for all teachers based on teacher subject expertise, encompassing school-based research and their ability to develop other subject teachers.


It is well-established that teacher quality is one of the most important determinants of student learning and that teacher subject expertise is a key component of teaching quality. But less is known about how to improve teacher quality and subject expertise for elementary teachers.

The high-performing8 jurisdictions of Japan, Finland, Hong Kong, and Shanghai provide useful details on which policies help ensure elementary teacher subject expertise. These four systems are among the highest performing on the 2012 PISA and each has students who are many months, if not years, ahead of U.S. students in reading, math and science. (See Figure 2) Each of these systems has a considerable focus on developing subject expertise of elementary teachers. But to understand how this occurs requires deeper analysis than, for example, simply looking at whether they have specialist teachers in their elementary schools (i.e., teachers who only teach 1-2 subjects). In fact, 2Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systemswhile Shanghai and Hong Kong have specialist elementary school teachers, Finland and Japan have generalist elementary teachers like most of the United States, which suggests that there are approaches to building subject expertise other than requiring subject specialist teachers. Looking at both specialist and non-specialist systems provides lessons that can be applied regardless of context.


These systems utilize four main policies that span teachers’ careers to increase elementary teacher subject expertise. Many of these policies address the exact same problems that bedevil the United States in elementary education.

They include:

a) Selection of candidates with strong subject expertise. This can happen at various stages along the teacher development pathway from entry into initial teacher education to hiring and promotion decisions. All four high-performing systems have strong assessments of teacher subject expertise.

b) Specialization. Each of the four high-performing systems requires elementary teachers to develop specialized subject expertise in one or a few subjects. In Hong Kong and Shanghai, elementary school teachers teach fewer subjects so they have time to develop deeper knowledge in those subjects. Even the generalist systems of Japan and Finland still require teachers to study one or two subjects in-depth during initial teacher education. Often, these teachers will become a teacher leader in their specialist subject area, which helps schools ensure that each department is led by a subject expert who can share knowledge.

c) Foundational content preparation in initial teacher education. Initial teacher education is structured to emphasize deep subject expertise in foundational concepts. Courses focus on developing a deep understanding of the subjects taught in elementary school rather than a shallow understanding of advanced content. For example, an elementary math program requires a deep understanding of arithmetic – the mathematical concepts and proofs it embodies – and how to teach it rather than only college-level math (e.g., calculus), which is useful but not as important for teaching in elementary school. Understanding these trade-offs is crucial in any reform debate.

d) Subject-specific support in schools. New teachers continue developing their subject expertise during induction periods, with subject mentors, quality textbooks and teaching materials, and access to subject experts in the school. Professional learning is strongly oriented to the development of pedagogical content knowledge that is, by definition, subject specific. As teachers advance their subject expertise, they become professional learning leaders in their specialty subjects and work to improve other teachers’ subject expertise across the school, region, and system as a whole.

These four policies interact with each other and with other aspects of K-12 education (e.g., the curriculum). These interactions signify systems that continually develop and reinforce the importance of subject expertise in elementary school teaching.

When education leaders continually emphasize the importance of subject expertise, it sends unambiguous messages to all parts of the education system. Teacher assessments of subject expertise signal its importance to effective teaching. School curriculum that requires students to develop a deep understanding of subject expertise sends a message about the teachers required to deliver the curriculum. And when system leaders deliver instructional materials that support instruction involving deep pedagogical content knowledge, it sends a clear signal to the profession and those who train and develop teachers.

Over time, these messages, if delivered consistently, have an impact. They change the expectations of what is required to become an effective elementary teacher. Districts and regions offer more support to develop elementary teacher subject expertise, professional development providers change their focus to gain market share, and universities follow suit, especially when they are included in reforms to develop subject expertise across the system.


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Adresse civique

Université de Montréal
Faculté des Sciences de l'Éducation
90, avenue Vincent d'Indy
Pavillon Marie-Victorin – C-536
Outremont (Québec) H2V 2S9

Adresse postale

Université de Montréal
Faculté des Sciences de l'Éducation
CRIFPE – C-543
C.P. 6128, succursale Centre-ville
Montréal (Québec) H3C 3J7